Microsoft improves its free online Office

Microsoft improves its free online Office

Summary: Where's Office for the iPad? Maybe you're looking in the wrong place. Today, Microsoft released its latest batch of Office Web App updates, pushing its free offering well past the feature set offered by its rivals.

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How do you compete with rivals that are willing to give away a product comparable to yours?

That's Microsoft's multi-billion dollar Office dilemma as it tries to compete with Google and its free Google Apps platform. For a generation raised on Gmail, Google Drive and the Google Docs family might be good enough for some potential customers to decide they don't need the "real" Office after all.

In a bid to raise the stakes, Google is making its free Quickoffice suite a standard feature of its latest Android distribution, KitKat. Meanwhile, Apple is stumbling, cutting features as it tries to make its iWork programs compatible across iPads and Macs.

All of which explains why Microsoft is evolving its Office Web Apps at breakneck speed.

The latest Office Web App updates will go live shortly for anyone who signs in at Office.com with a free Microsoft account or a paid Office 365 account. (If you're not seeing the new features yet, be patient. A Microsoft spokesperson told me the global rollout begins today, and by end of week everyone should have access to the new Office Web Apps.) These are significant improvements, enhancing collaborative capabilities and making the free online versions credible alternatives to the paid Office 2013 and Office 365 products.

office-web-apps-fall-2013
New Office Web Apps updates are relentlessly cross-platform

The most visible improvements in the new Office Web Apps allow anyone to create documents in the three online programs—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—and share them with anyone else for real-time collaboration. Effective with this release, online users of the Word Web App can stop hovering over the Save button. It's gone, as that app now joins its Office-mates in the capability to automatically save changes to files while multiple users work on them simultaneously. Any changes your co-workers make show up in the document virtually instantaneously. For Word and PowerPoint, you can collaborate on documents stored in SkyDrive or SkyDrive Pro using any combination of desktop program and/or web apps; Excel doesn't support real-time collaboration using the Excel desktop client, so to share a spreadsheet in real time everyone has to be using the Excel Web App.

Word also adds the ability to find and replace text in a document, a capability that is sorely missed in the previous Office Web Apps release. In addition, you can now create, view, and edit headers and footers in the Word Web App.

01-Word-find-replace

In the Excel Web App, new features include the capability to drag and drop cells and to reorder sheets. In addition, the web app now mirrors a feature found in the desktop version of Excel, offering a quick analysis of the currently selected range of data in the status bar, with sum, count, and average supported.

The PowerPoint Web App gets new picture cropping functionality.

And in case you missed the point in my opening screenshot, these are relentlessly cross-platform apps, which work on every popular browser in Windows, OS X, and iOS. (In a blog post announcing the changes, Microsoft says it's "still on track to enable editing from Android tablets, so you can access Office files and tools from even more devices." That change is due "in the next several months.")

Today's announcements also include one welcome loosening of license restrictions for Office 365 Home Premium. Currently, anyone who pays the $100-a-year subscription fee gets the latest version of Office on up to five devices. Beginning next month, Microsoft says they're relaxing those rules, allowing subscribers to share those benefits with up to four members of their household:

Each household member can use any of the available installs on their own PCs, Macs or mobile devices, get an additional 20 GB of SkyDrive storage, and manage their own installs from their My Account page.

Enterprise customers shouldn't feel neglected, either. If you're a subscriber to an Office 365 E3 (or higher) plan, your subscription now includes Microsoft's enterprise messaging product, Yammer.

Amazingly, the dramatic improvement in Microsoft online services is flying under the radar for most of the Silicon Valley press, which appears to be caught in a fierce Reality Distortion Field emanating from Google HQ. But for small businesses and individuals outside the Google bubble, these changes will be welcome indeed.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Microsoft, Software, Google Apps

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105 comments
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  • Real Office for iPad? Never!

    There is no way, ever, that Microsoft would issue an Office for iPad app that had substantial functionality in it. Doing so would require giving Apple a 30% cut on sales. That alone is the best reason not to do it.
    larry@...
    • Don't they...

      already have an iPhone version? Or is that just on Android phones?

      The app is free, but only works if you have an Office 365 subscription.
      wright_is
      • Yes...

        ...so Apple will only get 30% of nothing. Releasing key apps for free but making them work only with a paid subscription account seems to be the way to go to effectively circumvent the 30% cut-off.
        sevenacids
        • I second that...

          ...Apple is getting ZERO from the Office iPhone app, and the same model will be followed with the iPad app.
          toph36
          • I belive you can sign up for 365 from the iOS Office

            And Apple gets their 30% forever.
            x I'm tc
        • The issue is

          Apple wants 30% from the online purchase that is bought through the ipad, and they want it forever even with the user leaving ipad / Apple ecosystem. This is one of bigger reasons for the delay of Office on apple devices.
          schultzycom
        • Works for Netflix

          Subscription models are the way to go to cut out app stores from the equation since the app stores aren't bring much to the table in terms of value. Netflix and MS Office already have their user base. They just need access on Apple's locked down devices. Users have no problem buying these subscriptions online.
          DaveJMo
      • Not true.

        It is accessible with a free Microsoft account. Plus, the fact that is works cross-platform (with more cross-platform capability in the works) means that it is a good deal.

        The big thing is that it is a web based Office that is available for free. That is powerful. After all, while Google and Apple have their own office suites, each of them are basing them on Microsoft Office. In this area, at least, Microsoft is leading the way.
        Steven Laskoske
        • Free Microsoft account

          You said "It is accessible with a free Microsoft account." What is a free Microsoft Account? Please excuse my ignorance if this is well known.
          enrodgers@...
          • AKA Windows Live ID

            http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-live/sign-up-create-account-how
            Ed Bott
          • Free Microsoft account

            yourname@outlook.com
            andrea.florida@...
          • Free Microsoft account

            You do not even need a Microsoft address. I have had an MS account for a while now without a Hotmail/Outlook.com address.
            DAS01
          • +1

            Essentially doing this allows you to use your own DNS domain-based account name (like, say, joe@blow.com) as a log-in to any site requiring a Microsoft log-in. I also do this, as does everyone in our company.
            Moeity
          • Free Microsoft Account

            Register for an email account at www.outlook.com. That is a free Microsoft account.
            hackerish
        • Based on MS Office?

          Except that Offce was originally developed for Apple by Microsoft. I wonder what it would be like today if App,e had not commissioned Bill Gates all those years ago?
          Robjsewell
          • They already had Windows.

            Even if they didn't commission him, I'm sure that Office would still exist as the industry standard, knowing their OS adoption rate.
            ForeverCookie
          • Not quite

            Word was around on MS-DOS before it was on Mac. So was Multiplan - Excel's precursor (at least that is what I remember).

            Jobs didn't "commission" Microsoft to write Word, Multiplan and Chart for the Mac - I think "enticed" would be a better verb. From the consumer standpoint, Microsoft appeared very eager to get in as an early player in the then revolutionary Graphical User Interface world.

            I remember those days well (I wrote my Masters thesis in Word on a 128-kb Mac). The Mac versions of these apps blew the DOS versions out of the water. They were also better than any other Mac apps at the time. And, they ran on a 128kb Mac (Apple didn't bother supporting their early adopters when they came out with V2 of MacWrite a year or two after the first release).

            Excel also came out first on the Mac (it merged Multiplan and Chart). The introduction of Excel was what put Lotus on a path to insignificance. At the time, Lotus ruled the world with 1-2-3 on DOS, and their "Lotus Jazz" project was going to revolutionize the Mac world. But, it kept getting delayed. Then, Microsoft introduced Excel the same week that Jazz finally shipped, and that was the end of Jazz.
            Flydog57
          • History

            The very first Office suite as we know them today showed up on the Apple Lisa. Developers were furious that Apple as the OS maker dared to compete with them head to head (they no longer fear this). Apple decided not to port it to the cheaper Mac, and It took MS 7 years to ship A copy known as Office 1.0.

            http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2007/09/10/office-wars-3-how-microsoft-got-its-office-monopoly/
            sunflowerflyer
        • web based office is based on google docs

          The regular office suite is a collection of applications based on other preexisting applications like WordPerfect and Lotus 123. To believe that any office suite, especially a web based one is basing their product on MSOffice just because they offer a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software shows a obvious bias or a limited knowledge of the history of the software in question.
          techadmin.cc@...
      • When I got my Lumia

        it had Office already installed and working. I know, it isn't Android but I thought that was the idea in promoting the Windows phone.
        Now I have to wonder how far down Nokia has to be for Microsoft to consider this course.
        nesdave