Microsoft finally unveils its answer to Google Docs

After months of speculation about what it would do to stave off potential encroachments on its Office turf by Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Microsoft has spelled out its strategy: Office Live Workspace.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

After months of speculation about what it would do to stave off potential encroachments on its Office turf by Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Microsoft has spelled out its strategy: Office Live Workspace.

Office Live Workspace is, in Microsoft's words, "a new web-based feature of Microsoft Office which lets people access their documents online and share their work with others." It's aimed at consumers and small-business users, not corporations who are interested in being able to access their documents anywhere -- from any computer and any browser. In other words, Microsoft isn't playing up Office Live Workspace as a head-to-head competitor with Google Apps Premier Edition (GAPE). Microsoft is positioning its Microsoft-hosted SharePoint, Exchange and Office Communications Services (which it has now rebranded with as its family of "Office Online" services) as its GAPE competitors.

Microsoft is taking sign-ups from those interested in beta testing the English-language version of Office Live Workspace starting October 1. The actual invitation-only beta isn't likely to launch for another month, according to Rajesh Jha, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Office Live. The beta and the final versions of the service (at least for saving/accessing up to 1,000 documents) will be free, the Softies said. No word on how much, if anything, Microsoft plans to charge once users have more than 1,000 Word, Excel and PowerPoint files they want to store online.

Office Live Workspace is not a hosted version of Microsoft Office. Instead, it is -- like the rest of the Office Live family -- an extension to the client-based version of desktop productivity software. Interestingly, Office Live Workspace isn't just an extension to Microsoft Office 2007, but also third-party-developed office programs like OpenOffice, StarOffice and more, as well as Office XP, according to Jha. However, as you might expect, Office 2007 will work best with the new Live Workspace feature (other third-party and older Microsoft software won't "light up" the same way, Jha said).

(Microsoft officials told me about Office Live Workspace under embargo late last week, but didn't have any screen shots or sample version to show. So I am explaining all this based on a 30-minute phone conversation with Jha.)

Office Live Workspace is a password-protected SharePoint workspace, hosted by Microsoft. It's a place users can store and access documents for "work, school and home," Microsoft explained. Users will be able to e-mail drafts of these Web-based documents to multiple people. Those without a desktop version of productivity software handy will still be able to view and comment on stored documents via a browser.

Microsoft is positioning Groove (finally -- a real, understandable use for the technology developed by Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie's former company and aquired by Microsoft a couple years ago!) as the way that users will be able to access documents in their workspaces when they are off-line, Jha said.

"Groove will be the way you take any Workspace offline," Jha said.

Microsoft is planning to rely on the same back-end infrastructure for Office Live Workspace as it does for Windows Live. Microsoft plans to share the same contact lists and calendar entries between Windows Live and Office Live Workspace, Jha said. And Tahiti -- a k a Microsoft Shared View, a real-time collaboration service which Microsoft began beta testing earlier this ear -- also will be integrated, over time, with Office Live Workspace, Jha said.

Jha deflected questions about when Microsoft plans to field the final release of Office Live Workspace and/or the Groove component of it. How and when, exactly, will Microsoft add support for third-party desktop offerings? Not sure. And what about users who don't want the desktop office-product anchor around their necks at all -- those who want to create documents on the Web, not on their PCs? Microsoft seems to have decided to ignore that segment all together....

Right now, there are lots more questions than answers about Microsoft's planned Google Docs competitor. But at least Microsoft has acknowledged it has an alternative in the wings for the home/small-business set who want this kind of functionality.

From what little information is known so far, what do you think? Is Office Live Workspace a real competitor to Google Docs? If not, what's missing?

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