Free Microsoft Office Web Apps Available

Microsoft launched its free Windows Live versions of Office Web Apps on Monday.

The new service is currently available in English for Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Canadians can access a French version too; a Spanish version is also available for the United States. Microsoft plans to expand the service to other locales and languages in "the coming months," according to the PowerPoint team blog.

Office Web Apps are simplified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that run in supported Web browsers. These applications use the "Ribbon" user interface menu system that was first introduced in Office 2007, although the menu is far less extensive. For Windows systems, supported browsers include Internet Explorer 7 and 8 and Firefox 3.5. On the Mac operating system, Safari 4 is supported.

Users need to sign up for a Windows Live password to access the service, but it's all free. The service can be accessed anywhere using a supported browser and an Internet connection at Smartphone users can view Word and PowerPoint files without additional software on most devices, according to Microsoft's announcement. Printing files in Word and PowerPoint Web Apps can be done right from the browser.

Office Web Apps are tied to SkyDrive, Microsoft's storage space in the Internet cloud. SkyDrive provides Office Web App users with 25 GB of storage space, which can be used to save files and share them with others. A coauthoring feature is available, but just for Excel and OneNote. Microsoft claims that users can collaborate on a document at the same time and not be locked out, even as various people try to access it. In addition, Office Web Apps preserves a version history, which is saved on SkyDrive.

Using Office Web Apps in conjunction with Office 2010 will let users edit offline, according to Microsoft's announcement. It also enables richer features in documents, such as adding comments when coauthoring documents. Office Web Apps are targeted toward consumers and lack the management controls typically expected by business users. Microsoft has a whole other plan for business users of Office Web Apps, which may involve purchasing Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 or subscribing to Microsoft's online services.

Microsoft's announcement seemed relatively low key, even though offering free Office Web Apps to consumers via Windows Live represents a major marketing shift for the company. Customer premises-installed versions of the Microsoft Office suite have been a major cash cow for Microsoft over the years, but business users have contributed the bulk of that cash. Microsoft seems to have made the shift to free Office Web Apps in response to Google, which already offers its free Google Docs service to consumers and educational institutions.

Microsoft hopes to convert consumers to higher priced versions of Office by loading Office Starter editions on new PCs. That strategy will give Microsoft "80 percent coverage with Office 2010," said Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Office Business Productivity Group. He was answering a question about the free Web Apps strategy at a UBS technology conference held on Tuesday.

Koenigsbauer also answered a question on about Microsoft's business model with SkyDrive. He explained that "about 80 percent of our [Office] revenue comes from enterprise, about 20 percent from in the consumer space." However, Microsoft sees a need to capture that 20 percent because home users of Office will be "pushing their companies to upgrade."

Microsoft will describe more about Office Web Apps next week (around June 15), which is when Office 2010 is expected to be available to consumers.

Full disclosure: This story was written in Word using the Windows Live version of Office Web Apps and saved to SkyDrive. I found the cursor the Word Office Web App to be a little nonresponsive at times while editing. The spell checker was somewhat mysterious in that it did not seem to allow a checked word to be skipped. Saving a document was rather slow.

Also, as a test, I uploaded a formatted Word document, which included an embedded graphic, a simple table and an embedded Excel workbook. The formatted text, table and graphic displayed very well -- very much like the desktop version of Word. The embedded Excel workbook did not display, but it was accessible again when the document was opened using Office 2003 on the desktop. Also, because I have Silverlight installed in Internet Explorer 8, I was able to upload multiple files by dragging them to a folder created on SkyDrive.

Guy Creese, an analyst at Gartner, recently tried out the Word Office Web App on Windows Live too. He noted in a blog post that the Word Office Web App had fewer tabs and fonts than the premises-installed version. Also, the Web App version did not support custom-mixed colors and multiple columns.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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