Are Microsoft's free Office Web Apps good enough for you?

Are Microsoft's free Office Web Apps good enough for you?

Summary: When you think of Microsoft Office, you probably think of retail software that commands a premium price. Surprise! The latest iteration of the Office Web Apps are free and surprisingly powerful. How do they stack up against Google's offerings?

TOPICS: Software, Cloud

In the kerfuffle over the pricing and licensing for Office 2013 and Office 365, a lot of people seem to have overlooked one salient fact.

Over the past few years, Microsoft has steadily improved its free Office Web Apps to the point where they represent a credible threat to ... Microsoft Office.

Those of us who use Office apps daily tend to rarely see the Office Web Apps. And yet, they play an increasingly important role in the new Office ecosystem. The current Office Web Apps lineup includes the exact same programs as you'll find in Office Home & Student 2010 or 2013: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. But instead of costing $149 (MSRP) for three installations of Office 2010 or one of the 2013 flavor, the web apps are free. And they include 7GB of SkyDrive storage.

(Image: Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNet)

I took a much closer look at the Office Web Apps today, as well as revisiting my Google Drive and Google Docs account. (Please check out the screenshot gallery, including my carefully crafted captions, to get the full story.)

Now, let's get one thing clear right at the outset: If you think anyone will rigorously compare feature lists and specs for these two online services before choosing one, you are missing the point. People choose a free online productivity suite for two reasons:

  1. It's free.

  2. It can be used on any PC or Mac (and on many mobile devices) with any modern browser.

The tiebreaker is usually a quick count of how many friends, family members and co-workers are already affiliated with one system or the other. If your company has gone Google, that's going to sway you firmly in the Google Apps direction. If your company relies on Office apps like Word and Excel and uses an Exchange Server, that should tip you firmly in the Office direction.

Spoiler alert: Both of these online productivity suites pass the "good enough" test for casual home and student use, and even for most simple business documents. I'm not going to try to talk you out of using whichever one you've previously pledged allegiance to.

But still, I'm impressed by what I see in the latest Office Web Apps. Although these programs are technically web apps, they feel like desktop programs, with snappy performance and a real user interface. The Office Web Apps have adopted Microsoft's ribbon, so when you open a document in the Word Web App, it feels like you're running Word. You have to look closely at the ribbon to see the features that are missing.

By contrast, Google's interface is downright Spartan and decidedly old school, with a black-and-white theme and lots and lots of pull-down menus.

(Image: Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNet)

With its emphasis on round-trip formatting fidelity, the Office Web Apps are a natural for anyone who has to work with native Office file formats regularly. I found the process of converting documents to Google's formats cumbersome and far from perfect. On the other hand, you can open, edit, and save an Office document in the Word, Excel, or PowerPoint web apps and know that you won't lose any formatting.

I was also pleased to see that every Office Web App now supports simultaneous editing. If you share a document with someone from a free SkyDrive account, anyone with edit permissions can work on that document simultaneously, with your changes showing up nearly in real time.

(Image: Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNet)

The other edge that Office Web Apps have is on Windows 8 tablets. I was pleasantly surprised when I tested Office Web Apps in the modern (no plugins) browser on a Windows 8 tablet. The browser is smart enough to notice that touch-capable hardware is available and offers both a Touch Mode icon (identical in effect to the one in Office 2013) and a special touch-optimized quick formatting toolbar.

(Image: Screenshot by Ed Bott/ZDNet)

I was not so impressed by Google's performance with touch. Perhaps having a touchscreen on the pricey new Chromebook Pixel hardware will inspire Google's engineers to pick up their game a bit.

My point with this exercise, as always, is to help give you enough information to make an informed decision about which of these products is right for you. There's no right or wrong answer, only an answer that best satisfies the criteria that you consider most important.

But if you're unwilling or unable to pay the high prices that desktop software commands, it's good to know that there are solid free alternatives.

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Topics: Software, Cloud

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  • the UI of Office Web Apps is rich

    and similar to the desktop and Office 365. While Google Docs may be good for some, they are not very intuitive.
    Ram U
    • Long time Google Apps user, first time Office Web Apps user

      I'm a huge fan of the collaborative and simple nature of the Google Docs ecosystem and have been using it since it came out. The fact that a group of people can edit a single doc simultaneously and have the result appear real-time is amazing.

      That said, I tried out the Office Web App today and was BLOWN AWAY.

      Since my current collaborative workflow with others involves Google's Docs I don't think I'll be leaving it some time soon, but, for personal work in situations where I don't have access to Office 2010 or 2013 (the two versions that are on my various home and work computers) I'll definitely be switching over to SkyDrive (doesn't fill me with joy :( and the Office Web Apps for my own professional work.
  • This is Great

    I didn't even know these MS web apps existed. I have always downloaded MS free readers for word, excel, and Power point.

    Recently one of my daughters has been taking some college courses part time. I found out she could use office but was working around it to save money I had been thinking of mentioning some of the free office packages but this will work much better.
    • There are very good deals for college students who want to buy Office

      Particularly the subscription version
      • Do people that support software subscriptions also support

        leasing a car, renting an apartment, renting disk space on a cloud server and then seeing what happens when you stop the service and forget to copy data back over to a local source? ;)

        Never mind this is just a redistribution of wealth; by changing software to a service, just hook people in, make the data format proprietary, ramp up prices, and never have to worry about doing any work to innovate - just wait for everyone else to and then copy them. Easy peasy.
        • Do people that support buying everything outright realize

          that it is often better for them, from the financial standpoint, to lease or rent? i'm not saying that about ms office, in this particular case i think the old license was a better deal for buyers. but when it comes to cars and houses people that always buy no matter what "redistribute" their wealth away more often than they think
    • They really are

      They're not perfect; there are certain documents that I've tried to open that have some advanced formatting that don't work correctly. But at least for me personally, the issues I've run in to with the online versions of Office have been few and far between. MS has done a great job with these tools.
    • Yes, but...

      I've used Office Libre and was generally pleased with its performance. Then I opened an xlsx speadsheet with 3 sheets that had been generated in Word 2010. For some reason Libre completely hosed the 2nd sheet. I converted an unaffected copy of that xlsx file to ods but the result was the same. The second sheet still had a big white square blocking out the left side of the sheet. I gave up and now only open and edit that document in Word 2010.
    • Student edition of Office

      I believe you get 4 years of MS Office 365 for $75.
  • Another Suite of Free Apps

    Libre Office is also a very nice suite of apps. Given, it works on linux and is a bit bare bones but, it works good and is free.
    • LibreOffice for Windows is also available

      However, the kids have used it vs. Office 2010 recently and found they preferred Office 2010, or at least the PowerPoint and Word applications.
    • Libre works on Windows also. It's local. It's free.

      You can't rely on access to the internet at all times. If it's free that you want or need, Libre Office is just the ticket.
    • Exactly why I like LO

      It's given, it works on Linux (MS Office doesn't, natively), and as far as being bare bones, it does way more than I can figure out. Oh, and it imports Visio drawings and EDITS PDFs.

      If I need to make sure that a document "looks OK" in the proprietary Microsoft format, I open it in Office Web Apps. Easy enough, although I haven't found a Linux client yet.
  • Files have to be in SkyDrive

    Unlike normal MS Office apps that can work on files in say My Documents the Web Apps requires files that you want to edit to be in your Sky Drive folder on your computer. This is so the files are uploaded to the the cloud. This means that My Documents folder becomes useless for any Excel, Word or Powerpoint files that you want to work on.
    • Well once they are in SkyDrive, you could sync them to your local folders

      Ram U
      • SkyDrive app

        Just install the SkyDrive app and your files will be synced between your PC and SkyDrive. Works for me...
        • I want to use my directory structure

          SkyDrive seems to be yet another obstacle to the routine use of your own data disk.

          'My documents', or whatever its alias is in W8, belongs to M$. That sort of thing takes control one more step away from the user who OWNS the data.
          Daddy Tadpole
          • Not exactly true

            Microsoft has taken a very firm position that your data is YOUR data, not theirs. The claim this separates them from other cloud services, and that is how they market SkyDrive. They don't snoop your emails, scan your documents or look in your OneNote note books. Your data whether synced or not.
          • Directory Structure forced upon you

            I think Daddy Tadpole is saying that Microsoft is forcing you to use the SkyDrive directory structure rather than the one that exists locally on your computer if you want to sync your documents.

            It's a major PITA. I use Dropbox to sync my professional documents and I've basically accepted that I've got to keep my directories in the Dropbox folder.

            Now that SkyDrive seems to be more and more viable I fear that I'm going to have two competing yet incompatible directory structures running on my machines (Dropbox won't be replaced because it supports ALL file types while IIRC SkyDrive is limited to Office, PDF and image files).
          • OK, mis read Daddy Tadpole

            Ok, it seems like Daddy Tadpole wasn't echoing my complaint about Dropbox/SkyDrive.