Microsoft Office Web Apps go to testers: Ten things to know

Microsoft is making available to thousands of pre-selected testers on September 17 the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) test build of its Web-ified version of Office. Here are ten things about the CTP of Office Web Apps that I found interesting.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is making available to thousands of pre-selected testers on September 17 the first Community Technology Preview (CTP) test build of its Web-ified version of Office.

Office Web Apps

(Check out some new screen shots of the Office Web Apps.)

Microsoft officials first announced plans for Office Web Apps -- an offering that many industry watchers consider the Redmondians' response to Google Docs -- in November 2008. The Office Web Apps CTP originally was due to tester in August. Throughout the past few months, Microsoft officials have continued to stress that Office Web Apps aren't meant to replace Office, but to complement it. (We'll see whether that actually comes to pass, given tight IT budgets and the multiple-hundred-dollar price tag for client-based Office -- two factors that seem to be doing Google Docs no harm among small- and mid-size business users, according to a new IDC study.)

Microsoft plans to make the CTP of the free, consumer version available to testers via Windows Live SkyDrive, around 1 pm ET. Testers will get access to Word Web App, Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App. One Note Web App access will be added this fall. Contrary to some Web reports, Microsoft has no plans to add a Visio Web App to the line-up.

Microsoft's game plan remains to deliver a public beta of Office Web Apps later this fall and the final version in the first half of calendar 2010 (I've heard May/June). Microsoft officials also confirmed today that the final name for Office Web Apps will be... drum roll.... Office Web Apps. (So much for all that research on other possible names.)

Here are ten things about the CTP of Office Web Apps that I found interesting:

1. Who's getting access to today's CTP? Just because you were part of Microsoft's Office 2010 and/or SharePoint 2010 July CTPs doesn't guarantee you also will be part of the Office Web Apps CTP. Microsoft officials told me thousands of testers will be granted access to the Web Apps, including many Office Live Workspace users, partners and other testers. Testing at this stage is being limited to U.S. English and Japanese users, Microsoft officials said.

2. How can I get the CTP? The way testers and, ultimately, consumers, will get Office Web Apps is by accessing documents stored in Windows Live SkyDrive, Microsoft's free online storage service. Microsoft officials had said previously that the Web Apps would be made available via Windows Live/Office Live (which are now one thing known as Windows Live) but didn't explain further. This means if you want Office Web Apps, you'll need a Windows Live account (which is free). Under the "More" tab, users can find their pre-designated SkyDrives. SkyDrive has a limit of 25 GB and that applies to Office Web Apps, as well. 3. Why is feature "X" not working? This CTP is not feature-complete. It includes only the Web-based versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. (OneNote is coming with the beta later this fall.) And even those apps are pretty far from done. The Word Web App in the CTP doesn't allow users to create or edit documents; those capabilities won't go live until the beta release. And in the CTP, neither the Excel Web App nor the PowerPoint Web App will let you publish, or embed, a PowerPoint slide show or Excel Spreadsheet directly into into a blog or website. 4. What happens to Office Live Workspace? If you're among the 10.5 million people Microsoft officials say are currently using Office Live Workspace, Microsoft's collaboration service that was a pre-cursor to Office Web Apps, here's what to expect: Office Live Workspace will be superseded by Office Web Apps. Workspace customers will be upgraded automatically to Office Web Apps and Microsoft is committing to provide migration information and assistance in migrating data once Web Apps are available.

5. This is a Windows-only thing, right? Actually, Office Web Apps can be accessed from Windows, Macs and Linux systems. The requirement is those machines be running Internet Explorer 7.0 or higher; Firefox 3.5 or higher or Safari 4 for the Mac. No Chrome, no Opera, no Safari for Windows. (At least not for now.)

6. So if Office Web Apps really are cross-browser, can I try them out on my iPhone? Here's where Microsoft officials' answers are a bit squishy: They are saying mobile access for Office Web Apps will be coming in the beta and beyond. But they won't say how this is happening or for which devices/browsers. Microsoft also is continuing to develop a version of Office 2010 that will run on mobile devices (the Office for Mobile product). But officials are continuing to decline to offer any update on when that mobile release will go to testers, which devices it will support, or when the final version will ship.

7. Are these Web App versions of Office simply mini-, Web-based versions of the full-fledged Microsoft Office apps? Not exactly. While the Web Apps have a Ribbon UI, it won't have all of the functionality and options of the Ribbons that are part of Office 2007 and Office 2010. Ditto with the rest of the functionality in the Web Apps. While they will look familiar to Office users, they won't include every Office bell and whistle. (If they did, why would anyone pay for the client version of Office?)

8. If they can do so much of what Ofice does, why does Microsoft describe Office Web Apps as extensions to Office -- beyond the obvious reluctance to cannibalize its own Office sales? If you are writing a book, creating a massive spreadsheet or designing a PowerPoint slide deck, you probably will want to do it on a local machine, Microsoft officials say. (And I agree.) Microsoft is directly integrating Office Web Apps with Office 2010 (with a "Save to SkyDrive" feature inside the new version of Office). Microsoft is saying users will be able to upload and edit/view/access/share files created using Office 2000 and later versions (i.e. XP, 2003, 2007, 2010 as well as Mac Office 2008 and next version of Mac Office) with Office Web Apps. I asked whether Open-Office-created content also could be accessed via Office Web Apps and didn't get an answer, which leads me to assume the answer is no.

9. Are there still other versions of Office Web Apps coming beyond the free, consumer-focused ones? Yes. Software Assurance customers will have the added option of running the Office Web Apps on premise, accessing their on-premise SharePoint Servers. And Office Web Apps also will be accessible as part of some kind of Microsoft-hosted service/services (under the Microsoft Online brand). These variants are slated to go to testers this fall when Microsoft opens up the Office Web Apps beta to the public.

10. So what about print? I've seen a lot of chatter regarding whether Office Web Apps will allow users to do some really basic tasks, such as print. In the CTP, printing will be available for Word. By the time the final version of the Web Apps suite ships, printing directly from the Web-based variants still will be available for Word only, Microsoft officials said. Microsoft officials didn't offer a timetable as to when printing might be available for the Web-based versions of Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote. I'm wondering whether there are some other similar tasks that won't be enabled, either....

If you're among the chosen testers for Office Web Apps, I'm interested in your impressions of what you see once you get access today. And if you're not, what more do you want to know about the Web-ified versions of Microsoft's Office apps?

See also: Microsoft delivers a partial preview of its Office Web Apps by Ed Bott

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