Office improvements

Microsoft Office on the web

Office improvements

At the end of October, at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, Microsoft finally confirmed oft-denied rumours that it’s writing web-based versions of some of the Office apps. Chris Capossela, senior vice president, Microsoft Business Division, announced that Office “14” would include lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote accessible through a web browser. These web applications are designed to complement the existing Hosted Exchange Server, Outlook Web Access and Live Meeting, and the evolving Office Live Workspace for sharing and collaborating with others over the internet.

Microsoft is playing catch-up in this “Cloud computing” environment to companies such as Google and Zoho, which have stolen some prestigious clients over recent months, as well as making inroads into the home and small business sectors. Microsoft says the apps will work on different browsers and different OS platforms, not just Internet Explorer and Windows – indeed, it’s demonstrated them working on Firefox. They’re built using Ajax and Silverlight, but that inevitably means that their functionality and user experience will be poorer from clients on which full Silverlight functionality isn’t installed – for instance, Macs or Linux machines. The Office Web Applications will apparently be delivered to end users through Office Live as both advertising funded and subscription offerings. Business customers can choose either a hosted solution or to run Office Web Applications on their own servers.

Just how “lightweight” these web apps will be is still a matter of guesswork, but to judge from the screenshots and videos made public at PDC, they’re very cut-down. The web version of Word, for instance, sports just two Ribbon tabs by default (Home and Insert) rather than the seven on the full application. However, these screenshots were all carefully edited to removing any trace of server addresses or product names, and we’re still a year away from launch so more features may be forthcoming in the released product. The 80/20 rule will probably apply – that is, that 80% of people use only 20% of the features of a complex app such as Word. But, unfortunately, Microsoft’s own data gleaned from its Customer Experience Improvement Program suggests they don’t all use the same 20%. If you just need very basic word processing you could probably just use WordPad, the free word processor that comes with Windows (in the forthcoming Windows 7, it will even open and save ODF and OOXML files as well as RTF).

The big deal about these web apps is the way they bring real-time collaboration to Office where it was limited or non-existent before. OneNote has had real-time collaboration for some time now: two or more people can share a notebook, section or page, and both type into different parts of it at the same time. Excel has had some limited real-time collaboration, but your changes have to be saved on a regular schedule before anyone else can see them. Get more than a couple of people involved, or try to share a workbook over a Wide Area Network, and the system breaks quickly. Word and PowerPoint have never had any real-time collaboration before: the best you could manage was to send a document for review via email, possibly saving a copy on a central SharePoint server, then everyone’s changes and comments would come back to one person who would have to manually accept or reject each one.

The Office Web Applications make it possible for many people to edit the same Excel workbook, PowerPoint presentation or Word document at the same time, with all changes replicated to every participant within seconds. I suspect, reading between the lines, that the granularity of changes will be at paragraph level in Word and PowerPoint, and cell level in Excel – that is, there will be no problem so long as two users don’t both edit the same paragraph or cell at the same time (the way that real-time collaboration works in OneNote today). How conflicting changes are resolved will be an interesting challenge for Microsoft’s programmers. Until beta versions of the apps are released it’s hard to gauge how easy collaboration will be to set up, whether it will depend on Office Live Workspace or some new Windows Azure services, or whether it will work through SharePoint Services or the ordinary network filesystem. I expect a limited beta to become available by the end of 2008 and, if Microsoft follows past form, a more public beta programme around the middle of 2009.

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