When the Office 2010 Technical Preview was announced, Microsoft (s msft) said that it also would be making web app versions of the Office suite available. My early excitement was tempered somewhat when I realized that the web apps would not be released simultaneously with the Office 2010 Technical Preview and I’d have to wait to try them out. Well, starting today, Microsoft will start gradually rolling out Office Web Apps Technical Preview (beta) invitations to selected customers.
I saw a demo of the new apps yesterday, and have to say that they look quite impressive. Office Web Apps will be available for free through Windows Live Skydrive (which also offers 25GB of free cloud storage), and will consist of web app equivalents of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Unlike the more stripped-down Google Apps (s goog) and Zoho, the documents in Office Web Apps look virtually identical to those in the desktop version of Office. So, for example, charts will appear in Excel worksheets just as they appear on your local machine, and formatting is retained in Word documents (margins, fonts, watermarks, tables, images, etc.). This means that you should be able to create much richer, print-ready documents using Office Web Apps than you can with Zoho or Google Apps. Much of the interface is also borrowed from the desktop apps, which should help transition users to the web apps.
As you might expect, the web apps have a more limited feature set than the desktop apps. For example, while you can do reasonably complex things like add and remove columns in Excel and see charts update as a result of changes you make, you can’t create new charts. For that, you’ll need to use the desktop app — there’s a handy button that you can use to switch to editing the document on the desktop, though. On the other hand, the Web Apps have some nice cloud-enabled features; the Excel and OneNote Web Apps allow simultaneous editing by multiple users, for example. (Concurrent multi-user editing is not available in Word or PowerPoint, as Microsoft says that people find it distracting.)
Perhaps surprisingly, given Microsoft’s track record, Office Web Apps should be reasonably cross-browser compatible. Officially supported browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari (although others, like Chrome and Opera, are not blocked and will probably also work), and while the Powerpoint and Word Web Apps will use Silverlight if it’s available, it’s not a requirement.
It’s important to realize that this is only a beta, so some functionality is not yet included and there are still some problems to iron out; there is no editing in Word yet, for example. Microsoft also notes that you should periodically back up any documents that you edit with Office Web Apps.
Let us know your thoughts on Office Web Apps in the comments.