When Microsoft announced the first version of Office Live (see my preview) two years ago, the service seemed to lack any cohesive integration with the company's dominant office productivity suite and related servers. Instead, what Microsoft offered was a suite of online services for small businesses that combined a Web site, email accounts, and domain name setup, along with various online business applications aimed at helping customers manage their businesses. It's actually been quite successful: To date, over 450,000 subscribers are using the service.

Since then, Microsoft has expanded its Office Live product line. The previous service is now (more logically) called Office Live Small Business, and in this review I'll be focusing on a second service called Office Live Workspace. Both of these services exist under the wider Office Live umbrella, which itself lives under Microsoft's overall LIVE brand, which also includes Windows Live, Xbox Live, Games for Windows Live, and the Zune.

Office Live Workspace is notable for a few reasons, but the big deal here, in my opinion, is that Microsoft has finally provided a seamless link between its online offerings and Microsoft Office. In this way, Office Live Workspace is a living, breathing example of the company's "software plus services" vision, because while it's possible to access Office Live Workspace without Office, it really comes into its own when you access it from Office. And unlike Office Live Small Business, which is clearly aimed at small businesses, Office Live Workspace targets all office users, whether they're consumers, students, or information workers.

Office Live Workspace basics

So what is Office Live Workspace? Essentially, it's a SharePoint-based online storage service designed for users of Microsoft Office that provides anywhere/anytime access to important documents and sharing and collaboration facilities that so small teams of people can work together on documents and projects. If you're familiar with Windows Live SkyDrive (see my screenshot gallery), currently in beta and previously called Windows Live Folders, you may be wondering what the difference is between the two services. Though both are built on the same LIVE storage engine, SkyDrive is just about storage, like a USB thumb drive up in the cloud. Office Live Workspace, however, combines online storage with the aforementioned collaboration functionality and Office integration. Put more simply, SkyDrive is an online service, but Office Live Workspace is an example of software plus services.

Another way to compare the two is to understand that SkyDrive is a general purpose storage system: You could use it to hold Office documents, of course, but it's also useful for music and (small) video files, images, and other data files. Office Live Workspace, meanwhile, is about productivity: It directly supports Office compatible document types and PDF files only, and has built-in support for such things as notes, lists, contacts, and events. Where SkyDrive is universal, Office Live Workspace is finely honed for specific purposes.

Too, it's worth nothing that Office Live Workspace is free, and is advertising supported. It does work fine for those users who don't use Office, but works better with Office. It is compatible with Office XP, 2003, and 2007, a much broader range of Office releases than I suspect they absolutely had to support.

Using the Web interface

As with Office Live Small Business and most Windows Live services, you access Office Live Workspace primarily via a Web browser. The AJAX-based user interface is clean and logical, though not particularly Office-like. (One wonders if a ribbon-like UI for the Web is forthcoming.) It natively supports Internet Explorer (IE) and Mozilla Firefox. And get this: Microsoft tells me that Apple Safari support is forthcoming too.

The Web interface is divided into four logical areas. On the left, you will see a navigational area containing your workspaces, a list of others' workspaces that are shared with you, and deleted items. Along the top, there is a menu bar of sorts that includes the name and description of the currently loaded workspace (or a list of your own workspaces if none is selected) along with appropriate toolbar buttons: Hide and Delete for workspaces view, and New, Add File, Delete, and Move when an individual workspace is selected. Large buttons to the right side allow you to share your workspace or screen (see below) and expand and close the Comment pane (the latter of which runs down the right side of the UI).

If you have a workspace loaded, you'll see a work area below the toolbar. Here, there is a list of documents that are associated with that workspace. These can be documents you created yourself or, if you used a workspace template, you may see a list of automatically generated starter documents. At the bottom right of the UI is a yellow tip box, which can be closed: This box provides getting started information for new Office Live Workspace users, and it appears by default in all display modes.

Navigation is straightforward. One interesting touch is that Office Live Workspace supports something called cursor menus: As you pause the mouse over workspace or document names in the navigational or work areas, the mouse cursor will spring to life and a new type of pop-up menu will appear. This cursor menu provides different one-click options, depending on what you're hovered over. If it's a workspace name, you'll see Open, Share, Rename, Hide, and Delete. If it's a document, you'll see View and Rename and, if it's an Office document file, Open in [application] (where [application] is the name of the proper Office app, either Word, Excel, or PowerPoint). Cursor menus are a good idea, I suppose, but they're slow: You have to bring the mouse cursor to a complete stop and then wait ... one ... two ... three ... before the menu pops-up.

There are a number of ways to work with content in a workspace. Office documents, naturally, are well-supported. To preview or read an Office document in-place in the browser, simply click it in the document list. From here, you'll also see toolbar buttons for Edit (in the originating application, such as Word), Save As (to copy the file to your local PC), Versions (to access different versions of the file based on who's made changes over time), and Close. Alternatively, you can hover over a document title and choose Open in [Microsoft Office]. Word and Excel documents are previewed in HTML, while PowerPoint presentations are previewed as images.

In-place preview also works for PDF files, which are rendered as images. However, there's no Edit button, even if a PDF-compatible application is installed locally. To view or edit a PDF file locally, you will need to use Save As from the view page. You can also preview other common file types like images. Again, no editing choices are available: Just use Save As to copy to your PC.

One of the things that's really interesting about Workspaces is that it provides a number of built-in objects like notes and lists. You can create a new note or list, as well as specific list types like task list, contact list, or event list, from the New toolbar button, which exposes a pop-down menu when clicked. You can also create empty Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations in this fashion: When you do so, a new, empty document is created locally. Given the slowness of this operation, and the annoying security dialogs IE generates, you're better off creating Office documents locally and then copying them up to Workspace.

Anyway, back to those Workspace-specific objects. These are interesting because they're unique to Workspace, are designed to work mostly on the Web, but also offer various integration and synchronization points with specific Office applications. Here's what's available:

Note. Anyone who's actually considered using Google Docs as a Word replacement will laugh out loud when Microsoft's on-screen Notes editor comes up: It's easily as full-featured as Google Docs, with plenty of formatting options. Note, however (ahem), that Notes cannot be saved locally as text or RTF files. Instead, you will need to copy and paste.

List. Since most consumers use Excel as a glorified list maker, Office Live Workspace provides a simplified online spreadsheet for this purpose. You can add rows and columns as required, and format cells as single line or multiple line text, numbers, yes/no, or a date. You can export these custom lists locally as Excel spreadsheets if desired.

Task List. This is a preformatted list that includes title, due date, high priority (yes/no), and completed (yes/no) columns. You can publish a task list in Outlook's Task component or export it to Excel. Tasks lists that are edited in Outlook will reflect their changes back in Workspace.

Contact List. This is a preformatted list that includes first name, last name, email address, and home phone columns. You can publish a contacts list to Outlook's Contacts component or export it to Excel. Contacts that are edited in Outlook will reflect their changes back in Workspace.

Event List. This is a preformatted list that includes title, location, start time, and end time columns. You can publish an event list to Outlook's Calendar component or export it to Excel. Events that are edited in Outlook will reflect their changes back in Workspace.

The synchronization bits mentioned above are important: Items published to Outlook are not a one-way, read-only affair. Instead, they are live items that can be edited in Outlook. Any changes made locally will be reflected back up in the Workspace. That's pretty impressive.

Sharing information

As a collaborative service, Office Live Workspace provides a number of ways in which you can work on documents with others. This functionality is typically accessed via the Share toolbar button, which allows you to share workspaces and individuals onscreen applications (using Microsoft SharedView), and from the Shared With Me section of the navigational area, which lists workspaces that others have shared with you.

Sharing workspaces and documents

Office Live Workspace provides two levels of workspace sharing, where there are those who can edit documents and objects (Editors) and those who can only view them (Readers). To share a workspace with someone else, select it in the Workspaces list and then click Share and then Share Workspace. You'll see an email-style header appear, allowing you to specify users in both Editors and Readers fields, as well as a message that will be sent along with the email invitation. Once you click Send, the invitation is sent off.

The person to whom you invited will receive an email message with a hyperlink to the workspace, along with your access rights. Those with Editor access can perform virtually any task inside the workspace, including editing files, adding new files, and deleting files. Readers can only view files, of course. The originator of the sharing--i.e. the person who first created the workspace and then shared it with others--can stop sharing or share with others if desired. Editors are not afforded this privilege.

One can also share individual documents with others if desired. However, this happens only via the special Documents workspace, so you must copy files there if you want to share them and not an entire workspace.

Thanks to Office Live Workspace's SharePoint-derived versioning functionality, users can manually store the current version of a document as a version. This will create a read-only version of the document that will not be saved as an in-time backup. To access or create these versions, view the document from within Workspace and then click the Versions button. You'll see up to five versions of the document, along with the name of the users who saved them, and an Upload and overwrite file option that lets you upload a more recent version. You can also restore earlier document versions from this button.

On a related notes, Workspace is intelligent about document editing. If one user is editing a document and another attempts to do so, the second user will be notified that the file is locked for editing. You can then choose to open a read-only version of the file, create a local file and upload your changes later, or receive a notification when the other user is done editing. For built-in objects like notes and lists, editing is locked differently. Lists are locked at the row level, while notes are locked at the entire note level.

Sharing the screen

Using a beta version of Microsoft's ShareView (codenamed Tahiti) technology, it's possible to share your screen with others too, so you can collaborate in real time. Using this feature, you and up to 14 others can connect from physically disparate locations and share the screen. As with similar technologies, one user acts as the host and shares their desktop in real time. Then, you can invite others via email, Windows Live Messenger instant messaging, or telephone. From there, you can cede control of the screen temporarily to others, share specific application windows (for interactive collaboration), and perform similar tasks.

Accessing Office Live Workspace from Microsoft Office

Via a small add-on you can download from Office Live Workspace, it's possible to directly access your various workspaces from the XP, 2003, or 2007 versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. I've only tested the Office 2007 version of this add-on, where you'll see two new additions to the Office menu in these applications: Open from Office Live and Save to Office Live. These options work as you'd expect, albeit somewhat slowly at times in my experience.

When you click on Open from Office Live, for example, you will see a list of the workspaces available in your Office Live Workspace account (you'll be prompted to logon if required). This list actually appears quite quickly. When you select a workspace from the list, the Open/Save dialog appears with the contents of the selected workspace displayed. There's a light blue header so you can tell that you're accessing the online service and not the local file system. To open a file, simply select it as you would normally: The only difference is that the loading time could be a bit slow. Once the file is loaded into Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, you can edit it as usual and, for the most part, performance is excellent.

Saving a local file to Office Live Workspace via Office is a similar process: You will see a list of available workspaces in the Save to Office Live Workspace menu, and once one is selected, you will see the same Workspace-themed Open/Save dialog.

Looking ahead

Office Live Workspace is a tremendous first effort, and one that should satisfy most needs of those who wish to save, access, and collaborate on Office documents online. However, as a first effort, it's hard not to imagine some of the ways in which Microsoft could improve this service in the future.

For example, while saving opening files from the Web is certainly a useful feature, what's missing is something a little deeper. It would be nice to be able to duplicate or synchronize a workspace to your local Documents folder, work with the files contained therein while offline, and then have everything sync back to the server once you get online again. That's not really how Office Live Workspace works, however. Instead, you would need to save online files locally, work on them while offline, and then save them back to the service when you got back online.

Individual workspaces are also too flat. There's no concept of folders or file hierarchy, with all files in a workspace instead being conceptually stored in the same flat view. I could see wanting to collect a number of image files in their own folder, for example.

And while the Office integration pieces are truly excellent, they're a bit obscure. It's not obvious what the difference is between Edit and Save As, for example, or that publishing lists to Outlook will create an always-on two-way sync. Perhaps future versions of Office Live Workspace could offer a more seamless experience.

The performance is oftentimes sub-par. I have a speedy FIOS Internet connection, and there's no reason for file access to Workspace to be so slow.

Finally, as with all of Microsoft's suddenly burgeoning storage-based services (Hotmail, Spaces, SkyDrive, and others), I'd like to see some sort of cohesive storage consolidation between them all, along with affordable options for increasing storage on a yearly basis. This is something Google already offers, and I'm surprised that it's taking Microsoft so long to jump on board. For software plus services to really take off, users are going to need a stockpile of online storage.

Facts and figures

Office Live Workspace is currently in public beta in the US and for English only right now, but users who are interested in the service will need to sign-up, so the availability might not be immediate. This public beta follows a months-long private beta, and Microsoft says it will ramp up the offering over time so it can meet the storage and performance needs of users. The final version is expected sometime in 2008, and the service will be rolled out outside the US and in many other languages throughout next year as well.

Office Live Workspace offers 500 MB of space to users while in beta, though that could be upped over time. Microsoft tells me that's enough space for 3000 to 5000 documents.

Final thoughts

As the first Office Live service that is applicable to virtually all current Microsoft Office users, Office Live Workspace is a usable and feature-rich example of Microsoft's "software plus services" vision. The Web interface is clean and simple, and the service provides easy sharing functionality, even to those without Windows Live IDs or even Windows-based PCs. Naturally, Office Live Workspace works best in tandem with Microsoft Office, but then that's how it should be: Microsoft has been talking up how it plans to make its desktop applications better with Web services. Office Live Workspace actually fulfills that promise. Highly recommended.