Microsoft flipped the switch on its new Office Web Apps last Thursday, offering a partial technical preview to a limited set of beta testers and invited guests. I’ve had a couple days to work with the new web-based apps, which are both more and less than I expected. Here’s a hands-on report.
Let’s be clear right up front: These are not replacements for the full-fledged Office programs. They are, to use Microsoft’s carefully chosen phrasing, “streamlined versions” of four programs in the full Office suite. Currently, Excel and PowerPoint have the most developed feature sets, allowing users to create new workbooks and presentations, edit existing ones, and share web-based files with other users over the internet. Word offers the ability to open and view documents, but not to edit them or to create new ones. OneNote notebooks, which will be part of the final release, are not supported in any way in this preview.
And while the Office Web Apps are being developed along the same general timeline as the full Office 2010 suite, the publicly available technical previews for Office Web Apps and for Office 2010 are not in sync today. As a result, I made sure to perform tests using both Office 2007 SP2 and Office 2010.
Ultimately, you’ll be able to use Office Web Apps in any of three different configurations, only one of which is available for testing today.
Compared to the desktop versions, the Office Web Apps are most definitely streamlined. An uncharitable observer might even call them crippled. What works? what’s missing? I’ve assembled a screenshot gallery to help you see for yourself. For highlights, click to the next page:
Are Office Web apps good enough to replace desktop programs? -->
Compare that to the desktop version shown in the gallery here and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the differences. And the fidelity remained intact when I switched to a Mac and opened the same presentation in Safari 4.0, as shown here:
Likewise, charts and PivotTables in Excel looked indistinguishable from the versions saved on the desktop. I was able to use all the controls in data tables and PivotTables to filter, sort, and rearrange data in the browser.
But the PowerPoint web app doesn’t offer any tools for changing the formatting of those SmartArt objects. An even more glaring omission is the complete absence of tools for creating transitions between slides or animating objects on a slide (so that you can bring in bullet points one by one to match your narration, for example).
Likewise, the Excel Web App is great for entering text and numbers, but there’s no way to create a chart from those numbers. And if you look at a worksheet that contains a chart, you can’t make any changes to the format of the chart (although you can change the underlying data). Similarly, you can’t create or edit a PivotTable on the web.