Microsoft Office Web Apps review: first look
We’ve been looking forward to getting to grips with the Office Web Apps ever since the first, highly impressive demos at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference (PDC) almost a year ago.
But do the limited apps on offer in the technical preview live up to the promise of those well-polished demos? We find out.
Excel is by far the most impressive of the applications currently on offer in the technical preview. That’s because it’s one of only two apps where you can currently edit documents online (the other being PowerPoint), and it’s the only one that allows more than one person to edit the document simultaneously.
The Excel Web App sports the same Ribbon interface as the desktop software, although in a very cut-down form. Only the Home and Insert tabs are present, and a good number of the features from those two tabs are omitted. There’s no option to generate a chart from your data, for instance, or insert a pivot table.
Plainly, then, Microsoft doesn’t want people creating complex spreadsheets from the free Web Apps. In fact, it practically admitted as much last week, when Microsoft’s Office Live product manager, Tim Kimber, told us that “if you want to get into [features such as] deep pivot tables, you should be doing it on your desktop PC.”
That’s not to say the Excel Web App doesn’t have the power to cope with complex data. The online app coped impressively with the intricate formulae and conditional formatting used in our Labs feature tables, for example. Changes made to the data were reflected in dependent fields with a delay of only a half-second or so – not quite as instantaneous as the desktop software but certainly no showstopper.
The Excel Web App also dealt elegantly with features that rival Google Spreadsheet simply couldn’t cope with, such as named ranges (shown below) and displaying graphs already embedded in the imported spreadsheet (even though you can’t edit them).
Collaborative editing is equally impressive. Edits made to a spreadsheet are reflected almost instantly on the other person’s screen. There was no warning when two people attempted to edit the same field, and version control is missing, although Microsoft insists the latter will be rolled into the Web Apps eventually.
Also worth noting is the fact that Excel (and indeed PowerPoint) refused to allow edits on documents uploaded in the old Office formats (.xls and .ppt). Instead, the Web Apps demanded that a copy was saved in the new OOXML formats (.xlsx and .pptx) before edits could be made, which is a rather inconvenient faff. Not to mention a rather untactful reminder to upgrade to Office 2007 or 2010.
PowerPoint is currently the only other app where it’s possible to create documents from scratch – although why you’d want to using the Spartan feature set on offer at present is anyone’s guess.
There are no default design templates to choose from and only a limited selection of fonts. In fact, you can’t even change the background colour of the slides, which means you’ll have to put up with boring, plain white presentations. We can only presume Microsoft will add to the feature set in later releases, or else the option to start from scratch will be effectively useless.
The PowerPoint Web App is much more adept when handling presentations imported from the desktop software. Editing and inserting new slides into existing presentations is simple, and the online service uses the existing template on new slides, even though only a plain template is available when you’re starting from fresh.
Inserting pictures is more troublesome. Although there are plenty of attractive frames and borders available for uploaded photos, there is no way of resizing the image. Even relatively rudimentary features such as reveals and transitions are currently off the menu.
The full-screen Slideshow feature works reasonably well, with good clarity and no problem with lag (using Firefox 3.5, at least). All of which means the current offering is best used as an emergency backup for your presentations, should your laptop’s hard disk die on the way to a client’s, rather than anything close to a replacement for PowerPoint itself.
Word and OneNote
Online versions of Word and OneNote will both be available come the full release of Office 2010 next year, but for now they are both beyond any meaningful testing. Word operates in view-only mode, offering nothing more than the Save to Office Live feature that has been available in Word 2007 for over a year. One point worth noting, however, is that Microsoft currently has no plans to offer concurrent editing in Word documents, which will leave the Word Web App at a considerable disadvantage to Google Docs. In fact, collaborative editing is one of the main reasons we at PC Pro use the Google service.
OneNote isn’t working at all in the technical preview.
It’s a mixed start for the Office Web Apps. Excel shows considerable promise, coming the closest we’ve seen yet to an online app replicating the experience of desktop software. Yet, PowerPoint remains acutely crippled, and the other two apps aren’t in any usable state.
Although it’s clearly very early days for these online apps, the obvious fear is that Office Web Apps will only be useful for editing documents created in the desktop software, and of limited use when attempting to create documents from scratch. That may be a sensible move for a company seeking to protect its desktop software revenues, but will disappoint anyone hoping the Web Apps would provide an alternative to the regular Office upgrade cycle. Indeed, if you want to make Web Apps part of your company’s workflow – or even your own – you’ll need to upgrade to Office 2007 or 2010.
There’s also much work to do on the sharing facilities if Office Web Apps are to become useful as a business tool. The current SkyDrive sharing is based on public folders: if you want to share a document with, say, a dozen of your colleagues you have to create a folder with the relevant sharing permissions. If you want to share another document with only one or two of those colleagues, you have to create another folder specifically for those workers. Google Docs, on the other hand, provides granular control on a document-by-document basis. Microsoft would do well to borrow a trick or two from its chief rival.