Office Web Applications: Is It Enough?

Last week, Microsoft finally shipped a pre-release version of its long-overdue Office Web Applications to a small group of external testers. It's hard to overstate how disappointing this release is. First, the so-called Technical Preview is several months late, as Microsoft originally promised to ship this release as far back as December 2008. Secondly, it's not widely available at all, and it's unclear who exactly Microsoft selected for this first preview. Third, only the consumer version is available for testing, so it's all happening via an ad-supported service on Windows Live only. And the final nail in the coffin--and this is bizarre given how much extra time Microsoft has allotted itself--is that web apps aren't feature complete. In fact, they're missing some very basic functionality in Tech Preview form.

This is alarming because Office Web Applications is the beachhead for Microsoft's coming battle over the cloud computing future. Google--and smaller companies most of us have never even heard of--are busy building fully web-based productivity applications that may in some ways seem underpowered compared to traditional Office applications. But they're also specially attuned to the needs of the cloud computing model in ways that Office Web Applications are not. For example, with Google you can purchase additional storage and use web apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs offline. Neither will be possible with OWA.

[ Read more about Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. ]

Microsoft's approach says a lot about the company's core competencies--i.e. traditional desktop and server software. But it says even more about its current stance on its bread-and-butter Windows and Office products. And that stance is purely protectionist. In other words, Microsoft has no interest in any consumer or business replacing traditional installs of the Office suite with Office Web Applications. Instead, it is positioning the Office Web Apps as a companion to traditional Office. And it is artificially limiting what these web-based solutions can do in order to ensure that remains the case.

This is a mistake. And it betrays a key weakness in Microsoft's strategy to compete with the Google's of the world in the next great market struggle. Most problematic, of course, is that Microsoft has the tools it needs to win here. In fact, if it followed the traditional Office usage model, Office Web Apps would be so good that any competition it may face would be in name only. Imagine how dominant the Office suite would be online.

Instead, what we get is a minor subset of Office's full capabilities. Documents passed through the Web Apps retain their formatting, which is of course important, but many of the best features in Office--and indeed the best new features in Office 2010--can only be found on the PC desktop. Microsoft has already innovated over many decades in Office. The next innovation should see this suite truly live up to the "Office Anywhere" mantra: Within reason, it should work as well on the web--and on mobile devices, not just Windows Mobile--as it does on Windows PCs.

Oddly enough, this thinking is entirely in keeping with Microsoft's interoperability strategy, which we've discussed here previously in UPDATE. The company has little compunction allowing Windows Mobile's competitors to license Exchange ActiveSync. Well, let them have Office too. On the web. On the phone. Or on their PC.

[ Learn more about Office 2010 in my overview of the Technical Preview. ]

All this said, Office Web Applications isn't a total wash, and if you're curious about what's working and what isn't, please see my previous write-up about Office Web Applications.

An edited version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul