Yesterday, the Web was abuzz with news of the Microsoft Office Web Apps launching to a limited number of users. I’ve been following developments in the web office applications sector for a while now and have been waiting to see how Microsoft would do an online version of Office, so spent yesterday putting the Technical Preview through its paces.
It’s important to note that this first release is a Technical Preview (only the Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web Apps have close to full functionality). However, what I have seen shows a lot of potential for Office Web Apps, even with the present limitations. This post looks at how this beta stacks up against the Office 2010 Technical Preview (the desktop suite), Google Apps and Zoho Business.
Office 2010 Technical Preview vs. Office Web Apps Technical Preview
The quality time I’ve spent thus far covering the Office 2010 Technical Preview and OneNote 2010 has shown me that Microsoft is applying lessons it’s learned from previous Microsoft Office versions and is on the verge of delivering a greatly-improved Office suite with a number of productivity features.
Currently, the Office Web Apps Technical Preview isn’t as powerful as its desktop cousin is, but it may not have to be in order to be effective. I think that the reality in many organizations is that web office suites like Office Web Apps, Google Apps and Zoho Business can complement desktop apps, like Microsoft Office. You can still serve large sectors of your user community just fine with the web apps, with only a smaller number of power users needing access to both desktop and web apps.
The Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App in the Technical Preview aren’t as feature-rich as the desktop applications. As Simon noted yesterday, you can do things like add and remove columns in Excel, but you can’t create new charts. You can use PowerPoint Web App to create new presentations, including inserting new slides based on handy templates, and working with text and images, but it certainly isn’t as powerful or flexible and PowerPoint on the desktop. However, if you just need to use the Web Apps for editing existing documents, or creating only basic new documents, they will probably be good enough.
One thing I look forward to testing in Office Web Apps when it launches is round-tripping Microsoft Office documents from Office 2010 on the desktop to Office Web Apps, with little to no loss in document formatting. As much as I am a proponent of web office suites, I do a lot of client work as a technical writer and look forward to the day when I can work on the same Microsoft Office document on the desktop or from a web office application and encounter a minimal amount of formatting issues in a complex document like a user guide.
Google Apps vs. Office Web Apps Technical Preview
I’ve been using Google Apps for a while now, using Google Docs for light word processing and spreadsheet jockeying. While I like Google Apps, I find it to be a bit on the minimalist side when it comes to the user interface and functionality. However, for the tasks I use it for, it does a fine job because I don’t need power user features.
The Excel Web App and the PowerPoint Web App remind me of early iterations of Google Spreadsheets and Google Presentations. The Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps do a good job of maintaining the look and feel of your document — you won’t get a different-looking document when you’re editing it online. With the Word Web App only able to view documents at this time, I can’t size it up against Google Docs as far as word processing goes.
Zoho Business and Office Web Apps Technical Preview
I’ve written about Zoho in the past, including a post about the latest updates to Zoho Notebook, a Web-based competitor to OneNote on the desktop and, eventually, the OneNote Web App (which, unfortunately, is not yet available for testing in the Technical Preview). While Google Apps and the Office Web Apps Technical Preview take a more minimalist approach to web office productivity applications, Zoho delivers a more feature-rich web office application that can nearly rival a desktop application.
While some pundits predict the end of Zoho with the launch of Office Web Apps, I think they are targeting different user groups. Zoho Business can satisfy the needs of users seeking an online replacement for Microsoft Office, while Office Web Apps is aimed at users seeking to complement the desktop suite.
Office Web Apps in a Multi-Platform World
During the writing of this post, I tried to access the Office Web Apps Technical Preview with different browsers (except Microsoft Internet Explorer, which I’m going to assume will work okay). For much of my testing, I was using a Windows XP machine running Firefox 3.5.3, but I did also access Office Web Apps on a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard and the latest versions of Firefox and Safari. I am pleased to report that I had a consistent user experience across the browsers.
Final Thoughts on the Technical Preview
It’s important to temper expectations; the current Technical Preview is just that, a preview. There is still a lot more work ahead to get the Office Web Apps ready for launch. While I still want to see a lot more in Office Web Apps, I think the Technical Preview is a solid start, and plan to follow Office Web Apps until its launch and afterwards to see if Microsoft can keep the pace of new feature releases that Google Apps, Zoho Business and other web productivity applications enjoy.
What are your expectations for Office Web Apps?