With Office Live Workspace in play, Microsoft's Web-competitors (Google, WebEx, Zoho) speak

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Microsoft finally released the beta of Office Live Workspace (OLW) -- an offering that many see as as Microsoft's response to the pressure its flagship Office suite is getting from browser-based competitors such as Google (with Google Apps), WebEx, and Zoho.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that Microsoft finally released the beta of Office Live Workspace (OLW) -- an offering that many see as as Microsoft's response to the pressure its flagship Office suite is getting from browser-based competitors such as Google (with Google Apps), WebEx, and Zoho.

Although OLW does in fact contain a browser-based text editor that closely mimics the rich text capabilities of Microsoft Wordpad (a rich text editor that's built-into Windows) and a rudimentary list editor that includes rows and columns that can be exported to Microsoft Excel, Microsoft is in no way pitching it as an online office suite of the sort that Google offers in Google Apps (see my interview with Google App 'founder' Rajen Sheth) or that Zoho offers (at nearly 20 separate applications, Zoho could very well offer the widest breadth of productivity apps of any offering, Web-based or desktop). In my in video interview and demo with Microsoft product manager Kirk Gregersen, I learned that Microsoft really just views OLW as a collaborative infrastructure that's designed to give users a better way to collaborate on documents than many do now with e-mail and/or USB keys.

But much the same way Google is barely willing to admit that Google Apps is designed to compete with Microsoft Office, Microsoft seems barely willing to admit that Office Live Workspace is a response to the pressure that its Web competitors are bringing to bear.

While the Web is accessible from a range of client-side technologies that's more diverse than what is supported by any other platform, the range of Web-based collaborative offerings from Microsoft for working with productivity documents has been limited to two offerings; First, Sharepoint which is primarily a Windows Server- and Office-based solution that's ideally suited to behind-the-firewall collaboration and second, Groove -- the far more Internet-driven (than any of Microsoft's existing tools) collaboration solution that became a part of Microsoft's overall software portfolio when the software giant acquired Groove Networks in 2005.

But, despite Groove's strengths as a collaborative solution that works within and across organizations, its brand equity in the marketplace, and more importantly, the clout of former Groove Networks CEO (and now Microsoft CTO) Ray Ozzie, Groove seems more like Microsoft's forgotten stepchild rather than a brand and a platform on which to build as Microsoft looks to offer a compelling collaborative solution that works on organizational intranets as well as it works on the Internet and the Web. While Microsoft has finally recognized the strengths of the Web as a collaborative platform, especially for ad hoc organization of behind and/or outside-the-firewall collaboration, it has chosen to put its muscle behind Office Live Workspace -- a free offering that is more like what WebEx offers in WebOffice than it is like Google Apps or Zoho.

Even so, that doesn't mean Office Live Workspace doesn't narrow the gap against Google and Zoho's Web-based productivity offerings. Microsoft believes that the desktop is still the domain of productivity applications which is why, taken together, the company believes that Microsoft Office and Office Live Workspace make for a better aggregate solution than does Google Apps or Zoho -- both of which build many of OLW's Web-based collaborative capabilities directly in to the application.

While some activities, such as real-time collaboration are doable with the Microsoft Office/OLW duo, they may be more elegantly implemented in Google Apps and Zoho. On the flip side, Microsoft Office has its own strengths. Namely, it works well, even when you're not connected to the Internet (thanks to Google Gears, Zoho has some offline capabilities as well) and its core applications are far more robust than anything found on the Web. For this reason, Microsoft's introduction of OLW may very well be enough to keep the Google/Zoho-curious from straying too far from the comfort of Microsoft Office in order to take advantage of Web-driven collaboration.

That said, for those users seeking Web-driven collaboration around productivity documents, one question is "Why not WebEx's WebOffice?" Not only has the service already been through some battle-testing (whereas OLW is in beta, WebEx is "shipping"), its neutrality in terms of supported applications (for point-and-click editing of Web-stored documents, OLW only supports Microsoft's Office) means that WebEx has some comforts of its own to offer users.

Now that OLW is out, cutting a circuitous swath between Google, WebEx, and Zoho, I decided to spend some time in Silicon Valley talking to the three companies about their philosophies when it comes to Web-based computing and what if anything they had to say about Microsoft's OLW. As you can see in the attached video, WebEx's president of products and technical operations Gary Griffiths and Zoho evangelist Raju Vegesna were not shy in discussing OLW relative to their own offerings. But Google, as a matter of practice, rarely if ever discusses the companies or offerings that others see as the search giant's competition. In the video, Google's Rajen Sheth was happy to entertain questions about Google and the way it thinks about applications and collaboration. But Microsoft was not a part of the discussion.

Check out the video and feel free to comment below on what you saw.