Microsoft's Office Live Workspace: What it is and isn't

Microsoft Office Live Workspace -- which Microsoft released to U.S. beta testers on December 10 -- is Microsoft's answer to Google Docs. That said, there are some pieces of Microsoft's newest Live service that are different from Google's and its other Web 2.0 rivals' offerings.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace -- which Microsoft released to U.S. beta testers on December 10 -- is Microsoft's answer to Google Docs.

Microsoft’s Office Live Workspace: What it is and isn’t
That said, there are some pieces of Microsoft's newest Live service that are different from Google's and its other Web 2.0 rivals' offerings.

Office Live Workspace is not a Web-based version of Microsoft Office. It is meant, first and foremost, to be a complement to Microsoft Office. As Microsoft officials have said, Office Live Workspace service can be used from a PC, kiosk or other Web-access point without Office installed; all you technically need is an Internet Explorer or Firefox browser. But the company isn't expecting the majority of Office Live Workspace users to use the service this way.

As I've blogged before, Microsoft doesn't have an incentive or interest in taking one of its biggest client-based cash cows and making it available over the Web. Microsoft execs say they've surveyed users and that only a relatively small subset are interested in writing white papers on the Web or creating a PowerPoint presentation from an Internet kiosk. I have to agree. While many pundits and Web 2.0 backers claim users want to be able to create, access, view and share documents online, I believe it's only the accessing, viewing and sharing that most users really want.

At the same time, there are elements of Office Live Workspace that Microsoft ultimately could be position as a Web-based office (with a lower case "o") suite. There is a rudimentary online word processor called Web Notes; a "spreadsheet" that (at least so far) doesn't do calculations called Web Lists; and the ability to access, view and comment on documents -- both your own and those created by others who grant permission. I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft -- somewhere down the road -- assemble these elements, plus a couple of others into a Web-based office suite that falls somewhere between fat-client Office and ad-supported Microsoft Works.

Microsoft currently is aiming Office Live Workspace at the consumer, small-business and education markets. It's a service designed to simplify document collaboration without disruption from firewalls. Microsoft isn't ruling out enterprises as a potential customer; to do so would be to concede that space to Google Apps Premier Edition.

"We see two audiences for Office Live Workspace: Information workers, ranging from home-based to enterprises, and students," said Eric Gilmore, Senior Product Manager for Office client.

But Microsoft is continuing to play up Office SharePoint Server, Office Groove and the company's growing stable of Microsoft-hosted Online services as the best products for business customers. Microsoft's argument: Business users need to take into account regulatory compliance, archiving, back-up, directory integration, auditing, etc. -- all things that SharePoint can do better than Office Live Workspace.

Office Live Workspace is going to "thousands" of pre-registered testers in the U.S. today. Microsoft plans to extend the test to international users "early next year." Additional languages beyond English will be available "later in 2008." To be able to save from inside Office to Office Live Workspace, users need to download a client plug-in that is available on the Microsoft Download Center. Microsoft has said that current Office for Mac and OpenOffice users also will be able to make use of Office Live Workspace, but there are no plug-ins allowing the automatic saving of content from those products to the Live service.

There's no word on when Microsoft plans to take the "beta" tag off the service, but company officials are calling this release "version 1."

For more on Office Live Workspace, check out my ZDNet blogging colleague David Berlind's post, complete with an online demo of the beta service.

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