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This week in software wars

While Microsoft sets eyes Vista, Google opens new front in battle for greater piece of software titan's territory.

While Microsoft has its eyes on Vista, Google is opening up a new front in its battle for a greater piece of the software titan's territory.

In an apparent challenge to Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet dominance, Google launched a Web-based spreadsheet program that will allow people to view and simultaneously edit data while conducting an "in-document" chat. Google Spreadsheets, which is part of Google Labs, supports the import and export of documents in the .xls format used in Excel and the .csv (comma-separated values) format.

The launch is further proof that the company is eyeing Microsoft's Office stronghold, but should Microsoft really be worried?

In March, Google acquired Writely, a collaborative word processor that runs in a browser. The company hasn't made clear its plans for that product, and it remains in the beta stage of testing. Still, as the pieces come together, there's little doubt that Google is quietly providing Web-based versions of the Office applications upon which Microsoft has built an empire.

Although Microsoft does not have a hosted or Web-based version of Excel yet, third parties already provide the online sharing capability that Google is touting with its Spreadsheets, Microsoft noted.

The move perplexed many CNET News.com readers in the TalkBack forum.

"Who uses spreadsheets? People in business," wrote one reader to the forum. "No enterprise will allow data--especially financial data--to be hosted on the servers of a company they don't have a contractual relationship with."

Meanwhile, after months of limited testing, Microsoft made a beta version of Windows Vista publicly available for download. The company kicked off what it called its "Customer Preview Program," a testing period in which the software maker hopes that millions of tech enthusiasts will kick the tires on the new operating system.

The software maker is still cautioning that Vista is not ready for the average consumer, pitching CPP as suited for developers and tech workers, as well as hard-core enthusiasts who don't mind a few bugs and have a spare machine for testing. Microsoft also recommends that those interested in CPP run its recently released adviser tool, which helps detect how Vista-ready a PC is.

However, the company dropped a feature from Vista that would have allowed people running the new operating system to keep data synchronized among multiple PCs. The software maker said quality concerns were behind the decision to drop the feature, which allowed people to keep files up-to-date across multiple Vista machines.

The decision to drop the synchronization software is all part of the company's normal beta testing, Microsoft said, but it added that it doesn't expect a lot of changes to Vista's feature set between now and the final release.