I am writing this in Microsoft Word, hardly an unusual way to author a document. But I’m not using Word as you know it—part of the large, complex Microsoft Office suite installed on your computer’s hard drive. Instead, I am using a new, streamlined version of Word that for the first time resides on remote servers you reach through the Internet.
This new version of Word is used inside a Web browser. It works on both Windows PCs and Macs, and via the newer versions of the major browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome. It’s free and it doesn’t require you to have regular Office on your computer.
Word isn’t the only Office component that’s now available in a free online version. Microsoft (MSFT) has created similar simplified versions of Excel, PowerPoint and its OneNote note-taking program as part of the free online suite called Office Web Apps, which is available at office.live.com. To use the new online Office, you’ll need a free account for the company’s broader Windows Live online service.
Microsoft is also releasing a new version of its traditional desktop Office for Windows next week, called Office 2010. But in my view, the online edition is the most interesting new development for consumers in this round of updates. It’s part of the broader trend toward cloud computing—doing tasks online rather than with desktop programs. And it’s meant to help the software giant compete with rival online office suites from competitors like Google (GOOG) and Zoho.
I’ve been testing Office Web Apps on both Windows and Mac computers, and in all four major browsers, and I like it. It has some downsides and is still a work in progress. It lacks many of the more sophisticated features of the local, desktop version of Office. In fact, Microsoft—apparently trying to protect its profitable desktop suite—refers to Office Web Apps as a “companion” to desktop Office, for “light” work.
But these are capable, if simpler, programs that look and feel like their desktop counterparts and they will likely meet the needs of many consumers who produce basic documents, even if they don’t own desktop Office. Also, the new Web Apps are connected to a generous 25 gigabytes of free online storage for your documents, via a companion Microsoft online storage system called SkyDrive.
Another big benefit: Microsoft boasts its Office Web Apps produce documents that use the same file formats as the desktop programs and thus, look fully accurate when opened in desktop Office. The company calls this “fidelity.” In my tests, this claim held true, at least on my Windows PC. (A revised version of Microsoft Office for the Mac, tuned to work with Web Apps, is in the works.)
The new version of the desktop Office suite also has many new features, but a lot of these are for power users or corporate users, and, overall, it isn’t nearly as big a change as its predecessor, Office 2007. Among the new desktop features consumers will notice and use are the extension of the consolidated top tool bar called the “Ribbon,” introduced in the 2007 version in most Office programs, to Outlook; a new unified view for printing, sharing and previewing documents, called “Backstage”; and richer graphics. You can also now customize the Ribbon.
In my tests of the streamlined Office Web Apps, I was able to use a variety of fonts and styles, insert and resize photos, and create tables. And I was able to view my documents, though not edit them, on an iPhone and iPad. This also works with other mobile devices.
One glitch I ran into in the Word Web App was that, if you use a tab to start a paragraph, it changes the left margin of each subsequent line. Microsoft says this is a bug and it is working to fix it.
Another downside for some users may be that the Web Apps only directly open documents from, and save them to, your online SkyDrive storage, not your hard disk. So you have to upload files from your hard disk to SkyDrive to edit them in the Web Apps. And, like most cloud-based programs, they can only be used when you’re online.
There are numerous things you may be used to doing in desktop Office that can’t be done in the online version. For instance, you can’t drag photos by the corners to resize them, embed videos, create slide transitions or add new spreadsheet charts.
You can, with one click, open a Web version of your document in the full desktop program, to take advantage of richer editing. However, this only works with certain combinations of browsers and desktop Office versions.
Two of the Web apps, Excel and OneNote, allow multiple users to log on and work on the same document together. The others don’t yet. In fact, in my tests, I couldn’t open a Word document locally until I had closed it online, and vice versa. Microsoft says it is working on expanding simultaneous use to all the apps.
Office Web Apps are a good start for Microsoft at bringing its productivity expertise to the Web, and may be all many consumers need for creating simple documents.
Find Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos, free, at walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at email@example.com.