We tell the story of key technology trends from the past month.
Caption by: Alan Stevens
Launched at the same time as Office 2010, Office Web Apps is Microsoft's first serious attempt at a hosted office service, delivering lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote in a browser.
There's no extra charge for Office Web Apps. Individual users and small businesses simply have to sign up to the Office Live SkyDrive service while, for larger companies, there's an implementation that can be hosted in-house, requiring SharePoint 2010 to look after the sharing and collaboration side of things.
As with Google Apps and Zoho Business, no special software is required at the user end other than a browser, with Microsoft opting to support not just Internet Explorer, but also Firefox, Safari and (according to the latest Microsoft blog), Chrome. Opera isn't on the list, but appears to work.
We signed up to the free SkyDrive service and tested Office Web Apps using a typical 8Mbps broadband connection. Once configured, the various hosted programs loaded and responded fairly quickly — not as fast as the desktop version, but rapidly enough for most purposes. The online apps also employ the same ribbon UI as Office 2010 so, for existing users, there's very little to learn. However, uploading and saving documents can take a while, and there are far fewer menus and options compared to the desktop product. There are also differences in the way documents are saved and managed on the SkyDrive service.
Office Web Apps use the same ribbon UI as Office 2010, which should make it easy to learn — at least for existing users
Each Office Web App is effectively divided into two, with separate document viewer and editor tools — something that takes a little getting used to. Clicking a document, for example, only opens it for viewing not editing.
The viewer is the most accomplished of the tools, preserving features such as embedded images, tables, graphs and so on, so that what you see is virtually the same as with the desktop program. Moreover, document fidelity is preserved even for features that can't subsequently be edited online. Unfortunately, that's rather a lot.
The Excel Web App is the only one in Microsoft's hosted suite to support collaborative editing
In the Word Web App, for example, you can insert and edit tables, pictures and links, but that's all. There's no on-screen ruler, no way of setting tabs and, worst of all, more complex Word documents often become garbled. The Excel Web App is better, displaying complex spreadsheets correctly and even updating embedded graphs when data is changed. However, there are no tools to create graphs and other more complex objects. The PowerPoint Web App editor is poorly equipped too, although we had little trouble uploading and running existing presentations.
SkyDrive limits are another concern. SkyDrive users get 25GB, which is fantastic, but uploaded files can't be bigger than 50MB. Moreover, Office Web Apps only will only save documents in the latest Office 2007/2010 formats (DOCX, XLSX and PPTX,). Earlier Office 97-2003 documents can be uploaded for viewing, but they have to be converted to the newer format for editing and saving.
There's no printing option when editing a document, only when viewing. Documents must also be converted to a PDF before being sent to the printer, presumably to avoid driver compatibility issues. This proved pretty much seamless on a Windows PC with Adobe Reader installed, but left us with just a PDF on other platforms.
The PowerPoint Web App is fine for running existing presentations, but it's poorly equipped with editing tools
We also noticed a number of inconsistencies between apps. For example we had to manually save Word and Excel documents, whereas in PowerPoint this was automatic. Also, although it's possible to edit Excel spreadsheets collaboratively, this option isn't available in the other apps. Finally we found the advertising on SkyDrive very annoying — users of the on-premise version won't suffer this irritation, of course.
By contrast with Google's and Zoho's offerings, there's no email included in Office Web Apps. Given its several shortcomings, we wouldn't want to use Microsoft's hosted service full time. It's just about acceptable when Office itself isn't available — perhaps on a mobile broadband-equipped netbook or ultraportable with limited local storage capacity. It's also fine for giving presentations when you're travelling, as you won't need to remember to load up the latest version before you set out. Other than that, however, Office Webs Apps needs a lot of work if it's to catch up with the competition from Google and Zoho.
Caption by: Alan Stevens