- Editor's Rating
By Jay Garmon
Microsoft Office 2010 is taking on Google Docs with the June 8 introduction of the Office Web Apps, browser-based online versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint. Are the Office Web Apps ready to topple their cloud competitors, or is this more Microsoft hypeware? We break it down in this review.
Strictly speaking, the Office Web Apps are conceptually very different from Google Docs, sitting at the intersection of the desktop version of Microsoft Office 2010 and Microsoft’s free Skydrive online storage service. Word 2010, Excel 2010, PowerPoint 2010 and OneNote 2010 can all save documents directly to virtual folders on Skydrive, essentially making the Internet a shared network drive for any machine running Office 2010. The Office Web Apps are a set of tools for dealing with Skydrive-stored documents through the browser, rather than through their parent desktop applications.
Put more simply, if you’re on a machine that doesn’t have Microsoft Office 2010, you can still view, edit, and transfer your Skydrive documents using the Office Web Apps. While you can create Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents from within the Office Web Apps, these documents will have limited functionality until you open them in a desktop version of Office.
Skydrive and the Office Web Apps are designed to work with Internet Explorer, specifically Internet Explorer 7 or 8. While I didn’t test Opera, Safari, or IE6, neither Firefox 3.5 nor Chrome 4.1 played all that well with the Office Web Apps. Using the IE Tab Chrome extension solved my problems in that browser. Outside of that fix, there were saving or viewing hiccups — documents downloading instead of opening, or spawning empty browser windows — persistent throughout my Office Web Apps experience in non-Microsoft browsers.
Saving Documents to Office Web Apps
As noted above, the Office Web Apps are a part of Skydrive, so to use them you’ll have to navigate to Office.Live.com or Skydrive.com (and create a Microsoft Live account, which Hotmail and MSN Messenger users already have). There are five save locations in Skydrive — a general Photos area, Favorites, Shared Favorites, My Documents, and Public — but only the latter two apply to the Office Web Apps. (Both Favorites folders are for syncing bookmarks across multiple browsers using the MSN Live Toolbar.) My Documents is a private folder accessible only by you; Public is a Web-accessible folder for documents you wish to share with others.
Outside of saving a document directly to Skydrive from within Office 2010, you can upload files directly to specific Skydrive folders. Just bear in mind that where you save your documents determines how you can use them. Saving them to My Documents keeps them private; saving them to Public makes them viewable by the entire Internet. Moving a document into the Favorites folder will prompt it to appear in your synced browser bookmarks, while saving to the Public Favorites folder will display a document in your shared bookmarks.
Moving or copying files between folders requires clicking through multiple screens, which is tedious but straightforward.
Viewing Documents in Office Web Apps
The viewing functionality is arguably the strongest aspect of the Office Web Apps, particularly as applies to Word documents. The browser-based viewer is almost indistinguishable from each document types’ desktop counterpart. That said, unlike Google Docs, document viewing is segregated from document editing. Almost any document type is viewable in the Office Web Apps, while I had no success editing files that weren’t created in Office 2010 or the Office Web Apps themselves.
Despite the viewing/editing segregation, scrolling and searching documents in the Office Web Apps is simple and fast. You can adjust the rendered font size and conduct full text lookups, the latter mimicking the excellent Navigation Pane functionality found in Office 2010 proper. If you just want to keep reference copies of your documents in Skydrive for reading purposes, the Office Web Apps are greatly suited to the task.
Creating and Editing Documents in Office Web Apps
Above, you can view the Microsoft Office Web Apps online editing options for (left to right) Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, Word documents and OneNote notebooks.
In each app, users are presented with an abbreviated version of the Office ribbon interface. You can perform basic editing tasks, but the functionality is extremely limited. For example, themes and transitions are entirely missing from the PowerPoint Web App; you can find both in Google Docs and Zoho Show. In Excel, you can edit the data in any spreadsheet cell, but there are no means of editing or creating formulas or functions. Find/Replace functionality is entirely missing from all the Web apps.
The Office Web Apps editing functions are strictly suitable for light editing, like quick grammar or spelling tweaks made on the road before giving a client presentation. There are prominent menu buttons for launching documents in the desktop versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint an OneNote, which is a good thing given how little actual editing you can perform online.
The Microsoft Office Web Apps are not actually online versions of their Office desktop counterparts; they’re online extensions of the desktop Office applications — particularly the Office 2010 versions. While Skydrive is an excellent example of an online storage solution that’s well integrated into its associated desktop application, the Office Web Apps are little more than robust viewers with some bare-minimum or inadequate editing tools tacked on. Microsoft clearly has no intention of creating a browser-based product that could even remotely replace the desktop versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel or OneNote. If you’re an Office 2010 user looking for web-based document storage, Skydrive will serve you well. If you aren’t a Microsoft Office user, neither Skydrive nor the Office Web Apps are going to be of much use.
Bottom line: The Microsoft Office Web Apps should be called the Microsoft Office 2010 Web Extensions; calling them self-sufficient or standalone apps is simply false advertising.