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

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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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