In a salvo fired squarely at the online productivity tools offered by Google, Microsoft has released a beta version of Office Live Workspace -- a free Web service that allows users to post Word, PowerPoint, Excel or PDF files directly from within their Office application onto the Internet.
Office Live Workspace is being pitched by Microsoft as a better way to collaborate on documents.
"People get frustrated with the confusing free-for-all that can result when multiple versions of documents circulate in e-mail attachments that then have to be manually pulled together by the original author," said Microsoft Office exec Kirk Gregersen upon announcing the beta program.
"We're hopeful that Office Live Workspace helps solve these challenges by providing a place online to keep a single version of a document that everyone can work on -- so you'll always know if you're working on the latest draft."
After a user uploads an Office document to their Workspace, they can set permissions and send invitations for other users to either view or edit the document. Only a single user, however, can edit the document at any one time.
With the additional download of Microsoft's SharedView beta, multiple users can share a view of the same Office Live Workspace screen, again providing they are both users of a host of other Microsoft products.
The service, which requires a Microsoft Passport account and comes with 500MB of online file storage on Microsoft-owned servers, also provides a limited online word processing function called Web Notes and a limited online spreadsheet, which doesn't offer calculations or macros, for example.
Office Live Workspace is seen by many commentators as a response to Google Docs/Apps and other free online office packages that allow multiple users to store and edit documents online.
Far from being a Web-based alternative to Office, however, Workspace is more like a plug-in or extension to the fat-client application that adds a limited amount of online functionality.
Unlike Google's efforts to create pure-play online productivity tools, Office Live Workspace still requires users to have purchased a recent edition of Office -- Office XP, Office 2003 or Office 2007. Similarly, the synching mechanism only works for users on the XP or Vista operating system and not for Office for Mac, for example.
Microsoft says the product is aimed at students and SOHO workers that don't require the compliance, archiving and auditing tools of its enterprise-level SharePoint Server.
The beta program is currently only available to select testers in the United States. Microsoft plans to make it available internationally by 2008.
While the beta is free, the software vendor has not ruled out funding the service via advertising or offering "additional features or services at a charge".