When Microsoft first announced the Office Web Apps, I had hoped that I’d be able to use this online office productivity suite—which includes web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—in lieu of the feature-packed but monolithic desktop—based applications. That was not to be, as Microsoft positioned OWA as a lightweight Office companion, not an Office alternative. And that’s not changing much for Office 2013, though there are clearly some new capabilities brewing.

Two are worth calling out.

First, there’s been some speculation about offline use in this release. It’s pretty clear now that Microsoft is using the SkyDrive model for this capability, where you can sync the contents of your SkyDrive- and SkyDrive Pro-based folders to your PC using the SkyDrive desktop application. (Mobile users can of course just access the contents of these repositories over the air.) So rather than use some HTML 5 chicanery to deliver offline support through the browser, Microsoft assumes you will instead use live sync instead. Frankly, I think this makes more sense.

The other big change is that all of the Office Web Apps now support full co-authoring.

Each Web App gets other individual changes. These are noted below.

Word Web App

In Office 2013, the Word Web App (and other Web Apps) of course picks up the Office 2013, Metro-like flat UI from the desktop applications. But dig a bit deeper and there are some other changes.

word-web-app-compare
Word Web App (top) and the 2013 version (bottom)

There is one important change. I complained with the original Word Web App that the document text would occupy the entire width of the browser window, making this solution lackluster for actual writing. This time around, there’s a new Page Layout tab and the document looks and works like it does in Word, with the correct layout and size (but no text zoom).

Most of the other differences are minor. Word Web App 2013 picks up some additional commands, including Grow Font, Shrink Font, and Line Spacing, plus the new Page Layout tab.

word-pagelayout

PowerPoint Web App

Coauthoring: Co-authoring comes to the PowerPoint Web App. When you're online, you and your team can work together on the same presentation at the same time from the desktop or free via the PowerPoint Web App on SkyDrive.

ppt-transitions

PowerPoint Web App picks up a ton of new commands. You get Format Painter and a huge new Drawing tools section in the ribbon’s Home tab, a new Illustrations section and TextBox and Comment commands in Insert, and entire new tabs for Design, Animations, and Transitions, and a new Show Comments command in View. All of these things combine to make PowerPoint Web App a far more full-featured presentations tool in its own right and not just a viewer with light editing capabilities.

Excel Web App

The Excel Web App was perhaps the most full-featured of the current generation of Web Apps, owing in part to the broad capabilities that are available in the full desktop application. But the new Web App picks up a few new features related to Forms. Aside from the co-authoring capabilities, that’s about it.

excel-forms

OneNote Web App

While I use OneNote regularly, I find the current version of the OneNote Web App to be entirely lackluster: It lacks many of the key formatting tools you get with the regular desktop application and is laid out in a completely different fashion. For Office 2013, OneNote Web App charts an interesting path. It still features the backwards layout, with the pages of the current notebook listed on left, instead of the right. And its ribbon is minimized by default, as in the desktop application. But when you expose that ribbon, you can see that … well, there’s nothing new here at all. It’s virtually identical to its predecessor.

onenote-webapp

The big deal here, of course, is that Microsoft treats OneNote like a service, where your notes are stored in the cloud—either in SkyDrive or SharePoint—and then accessed by whichever OneNote client on whichever computing device you care to use. The web interface is just one possibility, but its frankly the least capable of all of them aside from the co-authoring capabilities. Which isn’t new to this release.