Office Live Workspace narrows Google App gap while playing to MS-Office's strengths

Office Live Workspace narrows Google App gap while playing to MS-Office's strengths

Summary: With Web 2.0 being the rage that it is, Web-based productivity software from the likes of Google, Zoho, and WebEx appears to be getting all the buzz while Microsoft which has so far eschewed the idea of a Web-based offering.

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With Web 2.0 being the rage that it is, Web-based productivity software from the likes of Google, Zoho, and WebEx appears to be getting all the buzz while Microsoft which has so far eschewed the idea of a Web-based offering. But if Microsoft's Office Live Workspace, the beta program of which opens today, is any indicator of Microsoft's preparedness to deal with the onslaught of Web competitors, everybody from Microsoft's followers to Wall Street can rest assured that the Redmond-based company is not about to get caught with its pants down the way it did in the mid-1990s when it was forced to regroup after being blind-sided by the Web.

Attached to this blog is a video of a demonstration of Office Live Workspace (OLW) given to me by one of the directors on the Microsoft Office team, Kirk Gregersen. For those of you who just want to listen, we've stripped the audio off the video and made that available as a podcast that can be heard by pressing play on the podcast player above. Or, you can download the MP3 through the player's menu. If you're subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts (see how to subscribe), the audio should automatically get downloaded to your PC, MP3, or both depending on how you have your podcatcher setup.

The demo was given to me last month (November 2007) and I've been embargoed from discussing any of what I saw then, until now. As you can see from the demo, OLW is primarily designed to use the Web as a shared workspace through which people collaborate on Microsoft Office-based documents. Much the same way the standard edition of Google Apps is free, OLW, which includes 500MB of free storage, will be available to users for free. Though they may not get to take full advantage of all that OLW has to offer, users need not have a copy of Microsoft Office to initiate and use an Office Live Workspace. Microsoft plans to support the service with advertising and no plans exist yet to offer an ad-free version for a fee. Gregersen told me that the company would consider such an offering if enough customers requested it.

Office Live Workspace is most definitely not a Web-based productivity suite like what Google offers in Google Apps. That said, between a lightweight Web-based word processor that includes most of the basic formatting controls (boldface, underline, text justification, indentation, fonts and typeface sizing) for writing and collaborating on what Microsoft refers to as "notes" (see image below) and a list maker that's as close to being a spreadsheet without actually being a spreadsheet (it doesn't do calculations, formulas, or macros), it's clear that Microsoft is really only a few lines of code away (code that's probably already finished, but not activated yet) from offering a fully Web-based suite of its own (continued below)

olw.jpg

(continued from above) ....
There are some big features found in Google Apps that are not found in OLW. For example, Google Apps includes e-mail, presentations, Web hosting, and what amounts to a centrally-administered portal (so important linkage and apps can be published to anybody within an organization).

The fact that Microsoft isn't yet offering the basic integrated suite (word processing, spreadsheet, presentations, email) online, if you ask me, is a matter of choice more than it is any inability to produce such an offering. While Google Apps, Zoho, WebEx and others get all the attention in the press, the truth is that Microsoft can afford to wait. Its Microsoft Office franchise has such a giant global footprint that the company's beancounters will probably know long before anybody else does when and if the tide starts shifting away from desktop software to something more along the lines of Webware. Should that day come (I think it will), anybody who doubts whether Microsoft will be ready with an entry is just fooling themselves. For now, the company is content to offer OLW as, what Gregersen called, "an extension" to Microsoft Office.

This isn't the first time Microsoft has offered a Web-accessible technology so that users of Microsoft Office could more easily collaborate over documents. Microsoft's SharePoint has been around for a while and then there is (or was) of course Groove, the company that Microsoft acquired from Ray Ozzie (now one of Microsoft's top execs). In many respects, some of OLW's fundamentals are the same as those of SharePoint. For example, from within Microsoft Office, users can check-out documents (Word, Excel, etc.) from the shared workspace for editing at which point others must wait until that copy is checked back-in before they can edit it. Documents can be edited offline and, when loaded back into a workspace, OLW will attempt to resolve hard and soft conflicts (a feature I haven't tested yet). Whereas SharePoint is a solution that you must host yourself on your own servers (or that someone else can host for you), Microsoft is the host of OLW, and its free. No Windows Servers are required.

Microsoft Office documents can be opened directly from Office Live Workspace and saved back to it just the same way you might save an Office document to your hard drive. Although the equivalent of a plug-in was required to get it working on our test PC, the fact that we were dealing with the Web instead of our hard drive as a filesystem was seamless and transparent to us. OLW supports versions of Microsoft Office going back to Office XP.

Today, although any document type (including images and music) can be stored in a OLW-based workspace, you cannot plug third party document types that require other productivity software (eg: Corel's WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, etc.) into the solution and get the same seamless operation with them as you do with Microsoft Office-based documents and Microsoft Office. Like wikis (which can track any given document back to its first version), OLW keeps track of previous versions of a document. Unlike wikis, OLW's "previous version" feature only goes back five versions. Gregersen told me that Microsoft would be willing to change this if enough customers said it needed to go further back.

If you've played around with Google Apps at all, you'll see a lot of similarities in how the two (Google Apps, OLW) organize documents. Entire workspaces can be shared with others of your choosing. Or, if you want you, you can share specific documents with specific people. Like Google Apps, documents can be published to a URL for anonymous viewing on the Web. But, also like Google Apps, all anonymous viewers can do is view such a document. In both cases (Google Apps or OLW), editing requires users to log into the services which in turn require users to establish IDs (with Google or Microsoft). A Windows Live ID is a prerequisite to getting into (or establishing) an Office Live Workspace but a Microsoft-based e-mail (eg: Hotmail) is not a prerequisite to getting a Windows Live ID. Your e-mail address can be in any domain. Not available yet to OLW users is the idea of a domain oriented context (like what Google Apps has). For example, where the main URL to reach your documents is something like http://documents.YourDomainName.com.

In a bit of a wizard-like way, Microsoft has templates for different types of workspaces to help people get started. For example, borrowing from Office, OLW has templates for a class workspace (for students that might be working together), an event workspace (that includes invitations, flyers, event planning lists, attendee lists, agenda, etc.), a household workspace (includes family to-do lists, contact lists, monthly budgets, etc), job search workspace, (contact list, resume template, etc), a meeting workspace, a project workspace, etc.

Lists in an OLW-based workspace (lists that can be edited directly online) aren't just your everyday ordinary lists. Reminiscent of Jotspot's early days (Jotspot, which was eventually acquired by Google, had spreadsheet-oriented lists), not only do OLW lists have some spreadsheet qualities (they are organized into rows and columns), they can be edited right within the Web browser and, unlike notes created with OLW's Web-based notetaking feature (other than copying and pasting, notes can't be exported), lists can be exported to spreadsheets. "Cells" (Gregersen doesn't refer to them as this) can be formatted in a variety of ways: numbers, single line of text, multiple lines of text, yes/no (a boolean field), and date.

Also, just like spreadsheets, columns can be sorted according to ascending or descending order. As Gregersen shows in the video, OLW columns will play an evolving roll for collaborators through their integration with Outlook. For example, if a shared-list in an Office Live Workspace is a contact list, Microsoft Outlook can use that list as one of its address books (Wow!, this is cool!). Longer term, it isn't hard to imagine these lists playing other interesting rolls (in terms of Outlook integration). For example, perhaps they could house data that goes with an Outlook form.

Not only is a copy of Microsoft Office not required to view a document, it's not required to comment on a document either. Both can be done via the Web. Viewers for example who might have to log into an OLW workspace from an airport Web kiosk that doesn't have Microsoft Office installed can view a document stored in an OLW workspace and make comments on it without ever having to invoke Microsoft Office itself. We gave this feature a try in Firefox (attempting to emulate the fact that a great many kiosks might not have Windows or Internet Explorer) and it worked.

If there's one area where Microsoft has some ground to cover when it comes to collaborating on documents, it has to do with where OLW is relative to Google Apps. In Google Apps, collaboration is so baked-in to the application's DNA that when I'm editing a document, those edits simply appear on the screen of other people who might be editing or viewing it. Here, Microsoft's legacy is quite evident. In the Microsoft world, you basically engage in screen-sharing through a downloaded piece of software that makes me think of Microsoft's NetMeeting. Whereas nothing special is required with Google Apps for a bunch of people to be able see the changes in near real-time (just a browser is required and anybody can make those changes at any time), Microsoft requires what is essentially a plug-in where control is passed around to people, each of which, when they get control, can make changes while others look on.

Whereas Google's approach to this sort of collaboration drives like a platform-independent Ferrari, Microsoft's is still the same old Edsel. Microsoft will of course argue that there's a big difference between real-time group editing of Microsoft Office-based documents (using Microsoft Office) and that of Google Apps-based documents. Office-based documents are far more robust than documents based on Google Apps' Web-based editors. Even so, the notes and lists functionality offered by OLW as Web-based tools could have the same sort of collaborative abilities that Google's Docs and Spreadsheets have, but don't. Give it time. The two will eventually meet in the middle and the shortcomings in either case are not dealbreakers for their intended audiences.

It's still very early to tell (and very early in OLW's beta program). But if your question is, is Office Live Workspace enough to keep existing Office users from defecting to Google Apps?, I'd say, at the very least, organizations who were considering Google Apps will probably have to take a look at OLW to see if it meets the bulk of their needs. Whereas getting the most out of Google Apps (particularly the collaborative parts) sort of requires you to go cold turkey on Microsoft Office (if that's what you have), OLW offers an intermediate step that will likely give some the best of both worlds they were looking for.

Make sure you check out the video and comment below on what you saw.

See also (other coverage):

Topics: Browser, Apps, Collaboration, Google, Microsoft, Software

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Talkback

46 comments
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  • What do I think?

    Microsoft,Microsoft,rah,rah,rah.Microsoft is the bestest software maker
    around.Microsoft,Microsoft,rah,rah,rah.
    The_Nutty_Zealot
    • Not much by the looks

      You actually think?
      I seriously doubt it.

      Thanks,

      Joe
      seosamh_z
  • Useless - still requires MS Office

    You need Office on your local machine and you can only exploit all of the features if you are using Outlook and its screen sharing add-on. So exactly how is this any different than Office and Outlook without Workspace, and replacing it with online storage products?

    Microsoft is out of touch with reality: they always have and always will try to force you into proprietary all-MS solutions which don't work on non-MS platforms.
    davidr69
    • Well DUH...

      Well, in a way you are correct. It is better with MS Office which is of course the defacto standard the world over. With 90% of the Office Productivity market it matters very little how it works with the competitions products. This may be a shock for you but MS is not in business to help their competition.
      No_Ax_to_Grind
      • Being sold to many doesn't automatically make it right

        It's crippling peoples' ability to communicate and the amount of people unable to
        read the Office fileformats are many more than those 10% you're stating because
        far from every text-editor is *sold*. Some editors come with the various OSes,
        some are from the open source community, etc.

        The market share number is pretty much useless i.o.w.

        This is of course Microsoft "inventing" a new way/excuse to get access to peoples
        wallets again. I see very little value in web-access for something as simple as text-
        editing. Try to look beyond the hype.
        Mikael_z
        • Of course it does...

          Ya know, every time there is a story about MS some fools have to get up and rant, regardless of having the first clue. Clue one, its free. Clue two, you don't have to have MS Office. Clue three, the market place is the only real test fo anything adn in that test MS beats all comers. Sorry but thats how it is.

          Now if you want feel free to rant endlessly about how the entire world has it wrong and you have it correct. (A final clue, Does "Get Over Yourself" ring any bells?)
          No_Ax_to_Grind
      • Boy are you looking in the rear view mirror!

        We are not at the end of history in regards to
        the evolution of software and it's utility to the
        end users. It is really simple, the future is an
        integrated ecology of software components that
        are easy to mix and match for any purposes the
        end users see fit. The only thing MS has
        cooking of real potential is Volta and then only
        if it were to apply a truly open standards
        approach to that framework. That might even
        make me a MS fan in the long run!
        raycote
        • Did you read the story?

          If you think MS is "done" with this or that they won't compete as needed then you really are off base. But hey, its ok, lots of bankrupt compaines and organizations thought the same thing so you need not feel alone.
          No_Ax_to_Grind
    • It is only useless if....

      Those requirements are unacceptable to you. But to many, these requirements will be more than acceptable. No, OLW is not a technological leap forward the way other services have disruptively offered something similar to locally run software, but on the Web. But despite my own personal feelings about the efficiency of Web-based software, businesses are much much slower to move to something so disruptive to their status quo. If collaboration is what they need and they want to do it without the help of something locally installed like sharepoint, and they're not ready to move to Web-based suites, this pretty much fits the bill.

      db
      dberlind
      • Why this product is just extension of MSOffice then...not at all the same

        Why this product is just extension of MSOffice then...not at all the same. Google office doesn't need an office suite, just a browser.
        I can't really see the point.
        This is about checking a box in a table of "features" when talking to ignorant CIOs I think.
        stevey_d
        • Still, it allows existing MS Office users to do collaboration without

          installing SharePoint servers. It will keep many from jumping to Google Apps to get collaboration without buying, installing, and maintaining servers. Microsoft had to do something, and this might have been about their best alternative.
          DonnieBoy
    • Well, that's the whole point dude

      Almost every office person in the world knows how to use Microsoft Office. This is a natural thing for Microsoft to do - make it simple for users to "Save as" to an online collaboration space. Most large companies are already using (or will soon be using) SharePoint which is superior to to this becasue it's more private/secure/controlled by the company. But for individuals or small business people who don't want to invest in thier own servers this is a nice solution.

      If you think many people want to use a purely Web-browser based equivalent to Word or Excel you're in dreamland. Try using Google apps for a while and you'll see that they're neat and probably useful for some cases but not replacements for Office.
      marksashton
      • Humble attitude.

        Two years ago I started a so called Small Business. (I am curiously wondering when I hit the borders of Big Business Country).

        Nevertheless, we have been using Zoho CRM for a year now and it gets our market and sales jobs done - and nicely. We use Google Apps for the remaing office jobs and get along with our business - well focussed and increasing sales. We love the freedom from a specific desktop and it gives us the possibility to maintain our business from anywhere.

        May I humbly state that I have worked in IT since 1966, I am 61 and a love developments. And I have exploited MS Office for years - and enjoyed it.

        And if you - like I - are a curious and wondering person you probably find pleasure in exploring new developments. I have always been looking into new solutions with care and the focus on what I need.

        I believe that web based apps are the future for our company and its employees.

        So far I am unipressed by Microsoft's web solution. And I will watch out for future MS developments.

        "Remember living while you care, remember loving while you dare."

        Cheers

        Niels Jessen,
        Denmark
        nielskrarupjessen@...
    • The point is, it is very useful for Microsoft. It keeps YOU, the eager

      customer paying for MS Office and Windows over and over and over and over and . . . . .

      With the billions rolling in for Window and Office, they really have no choice but to create lots of dependencies. It may bite them in the long run, but, the billions rolling in must be maintained at all costs, even if some customers see through the charade and are pissed off.
      DonnieBoy
      • Charade? Pissed Off?

        What are you talking about, really?

        Why would I be pissed off, as we can colaborate without maintaing a Sharepoint server?

        What Charade? the one that allows me to work with my documents online?
        GuidingLight
        • We could have very good compatibility between office suites, but MS is busy

          doing just the opposite. And, people want open sharing amongst all, with no dependencies on Window and MS Office.
          DonnieBoy
  • For the vast majority of Office users

    this will cover 95% of their needs. Eliminating the need of a SharePoint server removes a huge road block for many, many users. One thing I have not seen yet is an explanation of how Information Rights Management is matained in the documents.

    Not an Office user? Well, this may be the thing that brings you on board with the other 90% of the world. ;-)
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • Rear view mirror business model! Keep the faith and praise the MS - NT

      NT
      raycote
      • Gee, given the sales of Office 07 I'd say

        you are either clueless or being deliberately obtuse.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Perhaps it is you , who is in denial , continues to negate

          the fact that Microsoft was found guilty of being a predatory Monopoly . No_Axe you
          and the like disgust me all the times with all your BS . It is you and the others that are
          clueless and/or deliberately obtuse . Look biatch there is no Microsoft office running
          on my machines . If you want to sell your Microsoft products , try China , I hear China
          is getting rich off of the US .
          Intellihence