As a long-time proponent of what is now called cloud computing, I've been eagerly awaiting Microsoft's entry into the cloud-based office productivity market. This market has been dominated for too long by an unworthy entry, Google Docs, which to mind is dumbing down the user base by lowering expectations of what is possible on the web. Surely, I've thought, there's got to be a better way.

Office Web Apps is Microsoft's first real push into this market, since its disjointed Office Live Workspace and Office Live Small Business products neatly sidestepped the issue of working in the web and simply assumed that everyone would use PC-based versions of the various Office applications in tandem with live services. That strategy made sense years ago, but with Office Web Apps, Microsoft is finally making its first steps into Google Docs territory. My only worry is that it is doing so too tentatively.

Office Web Apps Review
Office Web Apps provides a lot Office functionality in the browser.

The Office Web Apps strategy is also just as disjointed as before. By my count, customers have several ways in which they can interact with both the Office Web Apps and the underlying cloud storage systems they utilize. These include:

 

Office 2010 desktop applications + Windows Live SkyDrive. In this scenario, you utilize a traditional Office application on your PC but access Microsoft's free cloud-based storage service for consumers.

Office 2010 desktop applications + SharePoint 2010. Here, business users use traditional, PC-based Office applications with an internally-hosted (on-premise) document repository.

Office Web Apps Review
Office Web Apps running in an on-premise SharePoint server.

Office 2010 desktop applications + SharePoint Online. Here, business users use traditional, PC-based Office applications with a cloud-hosted document repository.

Office Web Apps + Windows Live SkyDrive. Consumers can access Microsoft's free (but ad-supported), web-hosted versions of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint via the Windows Live SkyDrive service.

Office Web Apps + SharePoint 2010. Businesses can host both SharePoint and Office Web Apps internally, where Office Web Apps is basically installed as an add-on for SharePoint 2010.

Docs.com. A special version of Office Web Apps aimed at Facebook users. This is essentially identical to the "Office Web Apps + Windows Live SkyDrive" option above, except that your sharing capabilities are determined by your Facebook friends list.

Office Web Apps Review
Docs.com works just like Office Web Apps on SkyDrive.

Confused yet?

It gets worse, of course, because you can also mix and match to your heart's delight. And when Microsoft's Windows Live Wave 4 arrives later this year, there are going to be some other changes and additions coming.

I've tested almost all of these scenarios, having left only the hosted SharePoint option to the imagination. And what I've discovered is that while Office Web Apps, overall, is far more capable than Google Docs, and offers a much more desktop-like experience, it still has a ways to go before it can replace any true PC-based solution. That this is all by design is, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of this whole affair. Let's see what's happening.

Note: I'm going to use the phrase "Office documents" a lot in this review, and generally speaking I'm referring not just to Word documents, but also to Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and OneNote notes. This is just a convenient shorthand. If I want to reference something that is specific to Word, I will call that out as a "Word document."

Office Web Apps 101

Microsoft positions Office Web Apps not as a direct competitor to Microsoft Office (or various desktop-based also-rans--OpenOffice.org, Lotus SmartSuite, Corel WordPerfect, and so on), but rather as a companion, or extension, to Microsoft Office. This positioning is important because Microsoft is wary of losing any of its many paying customers to a product that is essentially free to almost anyone who wants it. So Office Web Apps provides a familiar Office 2010 user experience, complete with a ribbon UI (albeit a very scaled back ribbon UI). It takes some advantage of its online-ness by allowing you to collaborate with others on the same document and in real-time. And it provides a relatively high-fidelity document viewing experience. Except of course when it doesn't.

Office Web Apps Review
Each of the Office Web Apps provides an Office 2010-like ribbon user interface.

I suspect there are organizations out there that are eager to push their years-old investment in some earlier Office product forward a few more years, and that these organizations are looking to Office Web Apps as a possible solution to this need. I suspect further that these organizations will be disappointed, unless their users have very basic needs. Office Web Apps is a decent way to view Office documents, and a fairly decent way to edit them, but the latter is only true if you have never pushed the upper bounds of any Office application's capabilities. But don't get too carried away, because you may be surprised at what's missing. What's present, in these Web Apps, are just the basics.

By default, when you "open" a document in Office Web Apps, you will get the viewing experience. This experience hides the ribbon so that you can dedicate more onscreen real estate to the task at hand. Performance here is decent: In testing my most frequently used documents, each opened in 2-3 seconds and the viewing experience is pretty much exactly what you'd expect.

Office Web Apps Review
The Office Web App viewing experience dispenses with the ribbon.

Choose Edit in browser, however, and prepare for a wait. 5-6 seconds doesn't sound like a lot. But in my experience, Word documents open more slowly in the browser--and that's true whether we're talking about the Microsoft-hosted SkyDrive experience or an on-premise SharePoint experience--than does the same document locally with Word 2010. And you get to see the ribbon render in front of you while you wait: A "Loading" graphic appears, and the gray outline of the ribbon, and you wait, and then finally the document is ready for editing.

Office Web Apps Review
Wait for it ... Wait for it ...

Light editing, that is. Because Office Web Apps only provides a small portion of the overall Office 2010 experience. Using Word as a typical example, there are three tabs instead of seven, and you won't get any of the addition possible tabs--like Picture Tools--as you do in the desktop apps. These tabs, too, are less full-featured than their desktop counterparts and can't be customized in any way. So again using Word as an example, the Home tab in Word Web App has 25 commands, compared to 38 for the PC application.

Office Web Apps Review
The Word Web App ribbon compared to the Word 2010 ribbon.

But we might expect the web-based app to be less full-featured, in fact that's perfectly reasonable. But again, just looking at that Home tab, what's missing is often unfortunate. You get no Format Painter, Grow Font, Shrink Font, Change Case, Text Effects, Shading, and many others. There's no Reviewing tools at all, no picture editing. It goes on and on.

These missing tools make the Office Web Apps a lot less useful for intermediate to advanced users. Further problematic are the many problems. I routinely encounter weird little error messages that prompt me to "restart" Office Web Apps, which involves the current document closing unceremoniously, and that's been true both on SkyDrive and SharePoint. And sometimes a document simply won't open in the editing experience, prompting me to try Word (the PC application) instead. Sometimes those same documents open just fine in the browser, however.

Office Web Apps Review
A typical, unhelpful Office Web App error message.

And for all the high fidelity claims, I'm a bit disappointed that Office Web Apps can't accurately display some pretty simple formatting. For example, it can't even handle soft line breaks in Word Web App. (Well, sometimes. In testing this again, it worked in SkyDrive but not in SharePoint. What??)

Ultimately, what we're left with here is a very basic web solution that looks like Office 2010 but only offers perhaps 20 percent of the functionality. The issue I have with this is that I believe Office Web Apps has been purposefully detuned so as not to eat into desktop sales of Office. What Microsoft should have done, of course, is offered a more powerful version of Office Web Apps with cheap, subscription pricing. That way, they could offer something that sits between "free" and "Office 2010 Home and Student." Just a thought.

Sharing and collaboration

OK, so Office Web Apps isn't a straightforward replacement for any existing Office products, but it does fill a few interesting niches. What if you own an older version of Office and need to access a document that has newer features? Office Web Apps will let you do that. What if you want to share a document with someone who doesn't have Office at all, or a particular Office application? Office Web Apps will let you do that. Or maybe you need to share documents with a Mac user, who has access to Word and Excel but not OneNote. Office Web Apps fills that need nicely too.

Office Web Apps also provides some real-time collaboration functionality, though this varies from app to app. In Excel Web App, for example, two or more people can edit an Excel workbook simultaneously via either SkyDrive or SharePoint, and changes are reflected in real time, for both editors. OneNote Web App lets multiple people take notes simultaneously to the same shared notebook, and this even works with the desktop version of OneNote as well, so users can mix and match. (Note sync is "near real-time," however.)

Word and PowerPoint Web App do not offer any collaboration functionality. However, the desktop versions of these applications do support co-authoring, and you can collaborate with others on documents that are hosted on SkyDrive or SharePoint.

PowerPoint Web App also offers one of PowerPoint 2010's best features: Broadcast Slideshow. So you can present a full-featured PowerPoint presentation to others remotely without even having PowerPoint installed on your PC.

Google Docs comparison

I only occasionally use Google Docs, but as part of an ongoing effort to keep up on the competition, I have used this solution from time to time for writing and have, in fact, written a number of SuperSite articles and reviews in this environment. (We also use Google Docs in tandem with the Windows Weekly podcast, which gives me a regular look at what's going on there.) For purposes of this review, I loaded up my three frequently-used Word docs in Google Docs to see how Google handled them. These documents are modern DOCX files, and they utilize Microsoft's new Office 2010-era styles.

So, how do they look? In a word, terrible. Consider my WinInfo document, which is about as basic as things get. Google Docs destroys the styles, providing basic Times New Roman fonts for everything, and it removes the spacing between paragraphs. This is about as simple as documents get, people.

Office Web Apps Review
The same basic word processing document in Google Apps (left) and Word Web App (right).

On the other hand, Google Docs does provide a reasonable document width, one that is consistent whether the browser window is floating or full-screen. Office Web Apps, like some 90s-era web page, simply stretches the document out to the full width of the browser, making reading difficult, and it doesn't provide any obvious way to change that. On the other hand, the styles (including the fonts and paragraph spacing) are perfect.

Presentations and spreadsheets fare even worse in Googleland, and I have to think that anyone trying to move from Excel or PowerPoint to Google Docs is going to be hugely disappointed. I'm not exactly a presentation jockey, but I did create a recent presentation using PowerPoint that included a few flourishes, including an embedded video. Office Web Apps handled this presentation with ablomb, but Google Docs choked on it, offering to let me "open" it, which, to my surprise, triggered my desktop version of PowerPoint.

One area where Google Docs does come out ahead is startup performance, and if you try to start editing a new document in either environment, you notice the difference. Google Docs takes about 2-3 seconds to start up, and once you're up and running, the performance is notably good, probably due in part to the simplicity of the solution. Office Web Apps takes about twice as long to render the application so you can start working. But the actual editing performance is excellent as well.

Google Docs also offers some form of offline mode--and yes, I know this is currently in the throes of changing, but the new solution is already in place--while Office Web Apps does not. So you need to be online and connected to use Office Web Apps, meaning that during those classic offline situations--like when you're flying--you won't be able to work. Unless of course you buy Office for your PC. Which is exactly the point.

Wildcard: Using online storage with your Office suite

The one aspect of Office Web Apps that isn't getting enough attention, I think, has little to do with the web-based apps and everything to do with using the online storage in tandem with Office 2010. This is actually a very interesting scenario, because it gives you the best of both worlds, and looked at from a harsh, economic standpoint, is in fact what Microsoft wants you to do for obvious reasons. With Office 2010, you can somewhat easily--not seamlessly, but easily enough--access both SharePoint- and SkyDrive-based documents.

It's a bit ponderous. You can't just choose File, Open to open a document in the cloud, though businesses can of course do some mapping to make SharePoint-based storage the default open/save location. Instead, you can open SharePoint- or SkyDrive-based files in your traditional PC applications. This is more ponderous from SkyDrive. While both SkyDrive and SharePoint provide a browser warning about opening files from the Internet, when you open from SkyDrive, you also see the application open the document in Protected View, forcing you to manually enable editing.

Office Web Apps Review
You can save documents to the web or SharePoint using the Office 2010 applications' Backstage view.

But it does work, and it does give you the power of the full suite in tandem with the 25 GB of free SkyDrive storage that is otherwise still pretty hard to access. And if you should lose your Internet connection while editing a web-based document, Office 2010 has the smarts to cache it locally so you won't lose any work.

Availability and pricing

Office Web Apps is available now for SharePoint 2010 and will ship to the general public via SkyDrive sometime in June when Office 2010 becomes broadly available. It works with Internet Explorer 7 or later, as you'd expect, but also with Firefox 3.5 or later on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and Safari 4 or later on the Mac.

The consumer, SkyDrive-hosted version of Office Web Apps (or Docs.com, which is functionally very similar) is free. The SkyDrive version of Office Web Apps will be ad-supported.

Businesses that purchase a volume license version of Office 2010--Office Professional Plus 2010 or Office Standard 2010--will get a free a license for Office Web Apps as well. However, Office Web Apps does require SharePoint 2010, which is not free, or SharePoint Foundation 2010 (which is also not free, but is low-cost).

The Office Web Apps save documents in the Office 2010 ("X") file formats only.

Final thoughts

As a reviewer, I'm arguably never happy, and I'd like to see Microsoft be more aggressive with its cloud-based offerings. That said, even in this deliberately stilted form, Office Web Apps offers some meaningful advantages over the competition and should stave off many possible defections to Google Docs or other online office productivity solutions. Microsoft is walking a fine line here, hoping to entice customers to upgrade to the latest Office applications and suites while offering a compelling online play as well. But Office Web Apps is very much as Microsoft positions it, a companion to the PC applications, and not a replacement. That, to my mind, is unfortunate but understandable. Hopefully the software giant will reevaluate this decision and, over time, improve Office Web Apps at a much more frequent clip than it does with its PC-based productivity applications. Put simply, I like what I see here, but Microsoft could have gone a lot further. I suspect it will in the future.

Next: A look at Office Mobile 2010