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Office Web Applications Tech Preview

Office Web Applications Tech Preview

Today, Microsoft is making a so-called Tech Preview version of its long-awaited Office Web Applications (OWA) services available for limited testing. As of this writing, I haven't had a lot of hands-on time with OWA, but because of the tremendous excitement over this product, I want to provide a quick heads-up about what's going on here, and when you can expect to try it yourself.

As you may recall, OWA consists of four web-based versions of classic Microsoft Office applications. These include Word Web App, Excel Web App, PowerPoint Web App, and OneNote Web App. Microsoft is positioning the OWAs as "online extensions" of the traditional Office suite applications, and not as full-fledged replacements for them. They allow you to view, create, and edit standard Office documents using a familiar Office 2010-inspired, ribbon-based user interface. And while they obviously don't include the full range of Office functionality, it's a pretty impressive achievement.

Or it will be, eventually. In the Tech Preview version, sadly, much functionality is still missing. More on that in a moment.

Why Office Web Applications?

While Microsoft had initially poo-poo'd the idea of a web-based version of Office, the surprising popularity of Google Apps (with its bundled--and lackluster--Google Docs productivity solutions) no doubt played a huge role in jump-starting development of OWA. But Microsoft isn't (yet?) positioning OWA as a full-fledged Office suite. Instead, it sees it as a companion to the traditional PC-based Office tools, akin to the Office Mobile apps for Windows Mobile.

"There are over 500 million people using Microsoft Office," senior product manager Ural Cebeci told me during a recent briefing. "What we're doing is extending that to the browser. There are certain things that people expect to do."

Those expectations include the freedom to work anywhere, retaining document fidelity, and the ability to connect and collaborate in real time. And that's where OWA builds off of the foundation work in Office 2010--which includes other core functionality, such as a consistent UI across all the applications--and delivers on the anytime/anywhere aspects of this version of the Microsoft Office family of products.

"Some of the things we're doing now will be big deals for customers down the road," Cebeci noted. "By bringing the Office Web Applications to market, customers will be able to access their files from anywhere."

Introducing the Office Web Applications

The Office Web Applications will be available in three ways. Consumers can access the OWAs for free, from the ad-supported Windows Live SkyDrive site. (SkyDrive is Microsoft's consumer-oriented online storage solution, and it currently provides 25 GB of storage space for free.) Business users can access OWA from SharePoint Online, which will be made available from Microsoft and various partners. Or they can host OWA onsite via their own SharePoint installs.

There are some differences between the OWA offerings. Consumers will get basic functionality such as the ability to publish documents to third party blogs and web sites, for example. Move up to one of the business-oriented, SharePoint-based solutions, however, and you get IT-friendly capabilities such as full administrative control, auditing, document lifecycle management, and backup and restore functionality.

What we get in the Tech Preview

Sadly, the Office Web Applications Tech Preview is not a fully functioning version of the service. Indeed, when you consider that Microsoft originally planned to ship a public beta version of this solution as early as December 2008, it's hard not to wonder what's gone wrong here.

Most egregiously, there is no way to edit Word documents (or OneNote-based notebooks) in the Tech Preview. Co-authoring is only available Excel. (In the final version, OneNote Web App will also support co-authoring.) There's no integration with Office 2010 yet, though that is coming via the Back Stage feature of each relevant Office 2010 application. (For now, we have to access documents via the web interface only.) And there are no third party blog/web site publishing capabilities in the Tech Preview.

Word Web App offers viewing, but not editing, functionality in the Tech Preview.

What we do get is the ability to view any Word document, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation, or OneNote notebook, in full fidelity, via the web interface. We can create and edit documents via Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App only. We can share documents, via the web interface. And we can perform live co-authoring in Excel Web App. Not too shabby, but again, this thing is over 10 months late, so it's sort of astonishing that some very basic functionality isn't in there.

One high point is browser compatibility. Microsoft is offering an identical experience in Internet Explorer 7 and 8 on Windows, Safari 4 on the Mac, and Firefox 3.5 on Windows, Mac, and Linux. In the future, mobile browsers will also be able to access OWAs, and while Microsoft wasn't able to offer specifics, I took this to mean, at least, Safari on the iPhone and IE 6 on Windows Mobile. (We'll see.)

Speaking of compatibility, OWA is compatible with documents created with Office 2000 and later on Windows and Office 2008 and later on the Mac. The next version of Mac Office will also support some form of in-product integration with the OWAs, just like Office 2010 on Windows. But Microsoft will not be making an add-in available for Office 2007 or earlier on Windows.

One final note of interest regards offline capabilities. In version 1.0 of OWA, there will be no offline capabilities per se, though if you are editing an OWA-based document in a locally-installed Office application, it will be cached locally. So if you lose your Internet connection, you won't lose any work. But if you're editing in an OWA and lose your connection, you're out of luck.

A quick tour of the Office Web Applications Tech Preview

I was provided with a quick demo of three of the four OWAs, Word Web App, Excel Web App, and PowerPoint Web App. Each of the OWAs opens documents by default in reading mode, where there is no visible ribbon. But you can click an Edit button (not in Word in the Tech Preview) to edit the current document in the browser or an Open in [Office application] link to edit it in a locally-installed Office application. You can also print to a local printer from the web.

OneNote Web App.

Document fidelity appears to be excellent, and I was shown fairly complex Excel spreadsheets in the browser, which is pretty impressive. I'm curious to see how some high-end PowerPoint functionality, like embedded videos, translate on the web.

Excel Web App.

During the Tech Preview, I'll be accessing OWA via SkyDrive only, and if you're familiar with Microsoft's online storage solution, there are no surprises. Sharing is at the folder level, as before, and it offers basic integration with your Windows Live-based contacts list for sharing. (You can also randomly share documents with any email address.)

PowerPoint Web App.

I'll have more about Office Web Applications when I've had time to actually use it. I'm a bit surprised that there isn't a way to edit Word documents yet, as I take that to be the most basic editing functionality and I would have used it regularly if possible. But hey, it's a start. More soon...

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