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Microsoft debuts free, Web-based versions of Office apps

Late last night, Microsoft quietly did the formerly unthinkable: It posted free versions of its flagship Microsoft Office productivity applications--Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote--on the Web.

Two things helped make that thinkable: Google's success with its free Google Docs word-processing, speadsheet and slideshow applications, and the failure of Microsoft's Works suite--free on most new PCs--to satisfy consumer demand. So last year, Microsoft announced that it would end Works and replace its spot in the lineup with a free Office Starter edition as well as Office Web Apps, its own answer to Google's Web-based applications.


Office 2010's disk-based editions, from Starter all the way up to the $499 Office Professional, and the Web-based Office Live weren't supposed to be available to consumers until June 15. But a post on its Inside Windows Live blog last night revealed that Microsoft had other plans: Users in the U.S., Canada, Ireland or the United Kingdom can now start using Office Live at

(Weirdly enough, this development has gone unheralded on Microsoft's regular press site.)

I've spent most of today poking around these applications. My first impression has been of their stark simplicity compared with Office as we know it: OneNote, PowerPoint and Word each feature only four tabs in their "ribbon" (the tabbed-toolbar interface that Microsoft debuted in Office 2007), while Excel's ribbon has only three tabs. That's remarkably soothing next to the clutter of, say, Word 2007, which features eight tabs in its Ribbon and an "Office Button" that counts as a ninth. It should be harder for beginners--a primary market for this--to get lost in this interface.

My second impression has been of how many details Microsoft may still have to work on. For example, these applications default to storing your work in Office 2007's file formats--the ones with file-name extensions ending in "x," such as Word's ".docx"--instead of the far more widely used Office 2003 formats. The "share" buttons stopped working sometime this afternoon, instead yielding the error message that "We can't show you that page: Our server is having a problem. We're working to fix it as soon as we can, so try again in a few minutes." There are basic consistency issues: Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote all save your work automatically but Word does not, allowing a browser crash to wipe out your work.

But there's a lot more testing to be done. You can help me with that: Try out Office Live yourself and let me know what you think. Is this a respectable alternative to Google Docs?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 8, 2010; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Productivity , The Web , Windows  
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I am a light user of Google Docs and a heavy user of Office 2003. I tried Office Live. It's all right and I think they are on the right track. Here are a few thoughts.

1. I wasted a lot of time on before realizing I should be at My fault but I think this is confusing.

2. To open an Office Live .docx document in my Office (Word) 2003 DIRECTLY one needs to have Internet Explorer with an ActiveX control installed. For someone like me with just Firefox and Office 2003, the recommendation is to install a trial version Office 2010 that I can use free for a while. ( ) Now, that's lame. As an alternative to opening the document directly, one can download the document in .docx format, which my Office 2003 will then open. That worked fine and, practically, is OK for me.

3. It has a nice set of formatting tools. Practically, I can do a lot of what I need with Google Docs but it is nice to have a familiar look especially for someone like me who just uses it once in a while.

4. For me personally, this would have been very useful a few times when I was traveling and my laptop crashed. You can borrow another computer for a while but you may not have the applications you need. Being able to do this online, if you have your documents stored separately, can be a lifesaver. At the moment, that is probably all I will use it for -- a backup application. I haven't explored the sharing capabilities of Office Live and I probably should; maybe there is more I can do with that.

Posted by: ObamasGulfResponseIsMuchWorseThanKatrina | June 8, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

I'm not particularly impressed with Word Live. The footnote implementation is confusing (like Google's) and only displays as expected in "Reading View" (i.e. not editing mode). And if you upload a document with tracked changes, Word Live simply refuses to open it and directs you to use the app.

Posted by: blackasphalt | June 9, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

There are some minor problems with on-line apps the foremost of which is security. I don't want any of my personal documents to be accessible, even if encrypted, on the web; one has no way of knowing whether something has been comprised until after the fact and, even then, only if the provider tells you.

I've been very, very happy with OpenOffice. We use both Linux and Windows at home so the fact that OpenOffice works well on both is critical. OpenOffice works so well that my wife, an ex-confirmed MS Office user, switched and now uses both Linux and OpenOffice. We have had none to minimal compatibility problems with MS Office documents (Excel and Word).

Posted by: lennyp | June 9, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Google Docs is not great, but it works well enough. The problem is, I already have my iGoogle page set up and I use Google for everything on the web (calendar, email, etc). I do have a Windows Live account, but I really don't use it, and it would take a lot for me to move over. Microsoft should never have made Microsoft Works and instead made Office Light from the beginning.

Posted by: nuzuw | June 9, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps Microsoft's executives also sensed pressure from OpenOffice, which is free from and works on various operating systems.

Posted by: TeresaBinstock | June 9, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm not exactly surprised at the news, MS seems intent on defending what it has instead of going for something new like Apple... (MS seems to embrace passive grand strategy)

On technical side, a question is when to use Word and when to use OneNote, there seems to be a blurring line there... The second question is, both seems to be generic tools for word processing... and for OneNote, it seems that note-taking for the sake of note-taking has limited value in itself...
And a third question is, on data security, along the following line, "I don't want any of my personal documents to be accessible". As a consumer, I'm not exactly comfortable storing all my data on a remote server, meaning, data ownership goes to someone else or corporation.

Rob, you should check out Knowledge NoteBook's latest bleeding version 2.99
(not publicly released yet but the downloadable follows the same file naming convention as other v2.96.exe etc. which was yesterday's ware...)

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | June 9, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

With Google Docs and OpenOffice, who needs another piece of junk from Garbagesoft.

Posted by: sayNo2MS | June 9, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I just tried it. I only use very basic Word functions so the interface is comfortable for me. Problem with the .docx since I am a .doc gal. I emailed a copy of my test doc to never arrived and it's not in the spam folder will surely be a .docx.

Posted by: tbva | June 9, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I like the Office Web App, but it has a serious usability flaw. It saves files by default to the root folder, then it doesn't allow you to move your files around! So, a user will save 20 docs/xls to their skydrive, then not be able to organize them! You can't even put them in the Documents folder.
The workaround is to navigate to the Documents folder, THEN create a new doc/xls. Then those files are movable. I can't believe that after months of beta testing, the default create/save/organize scenario wasn't addressed.

Posted by: petrolly | June 9, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Tell "them" not to quit their day jobs. Computing should be straighforward.

Posted by: stepbystep1234 | June 9, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

I've just tried the OneNote web app. Before I'm going to talk about my findings I'll share what I believe is important when it comes to note-taking (and this is a starting point).
a) ease of input
b) ease of finding notes (note organization)
c) help me to connect thoughts from various notes

Now, let's see how this OneNote web app fared.
1) data input is too slow (fast typing is not possible, pls note: I can type fast here at WP comment form). This is a serious problem.
2) I've entered a bunch of notes, they are listed flatly. Well, what if I need to find all my notes for "Communication 101", it looks like I would have to organize them by myself, time-consuming...
3) The tag feature seems funny to me, why do you think I need to use your list? and I couldn't find a way to add a new item...

Maybe I'm a bit biased.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | June 9, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

This is the icing on the cake for me! Almost two years ago I proposed making Office apps user fee based, but Microsoft's head of licensing scoffed at me, stating that Microsoft would NEVER EVER allow access to it's proprietary programs over the internet. My how the world has changed. Thanks Google. Nice that Microsoft ripped me off as well.

Posted by: panamacanuck | June 9, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Next up:

Security Flaws Revealed in MS Office Live
-Users report malware downloads in saved documents

Posted by: hisroc | June 9, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

No good to me doesn't work in the land of Oz. Bet it doesn't work with Firefox running on Linux either. Google Docs scores full marks on both counts. Any wonder MS' market share is slipping.

On the plus side it is good to see MS slowly, ever so slowly, realise that the world has changed and hopeful they will too and we'll all benefit from some more innovation and competition.

Posted by: paulgittings | June 9, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

"Simple" = crippled. If you took some training, you would not "get lost" in Office 2007. I love a tech columnist who is easily confused by technology. Only in WaPo, where everything is dumbed down to the point of irrelevancy.

If you want really basic word processing, use WordPad. There are (lots of) people who need the functions under the other four tabs; that's why MS paid for the development to offer those features.

Posted by: gbooksdc | June 9, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm comfortable with Office '03 for the light wp I do.

Any compelling reason to move to '10?

(I bought, then uninstalled, '07, not worth the hassle.)

Posted by: burlough | June 9, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

So I decided to try out this on-line version of Powerpoint because I get a lot of .ppt files from friends. Keynote opens them OK, but not always 100% correctly.

I followed your link and learned I had to sign up for a Windows Live ID. OK, I plod through the application form and click on the "I accept" button. The little gear on my Mac in Safari spins for 10 minutes while the word Working... is displayed. Safari doesn't work with Windows Live, Who knew?

On to FireFox, same drill but the selection box is displayed so I'm signing up for a hotmail account. OK, I can do that.

I log into my new Hotmail account and find a Welcome To Hotmail message in the inbox. When I tried to forward this message (from Microsoft) to my gmail account, I was told it appeared to be spam and I should edit it and change something!!!

When I tried it a 2nd time, my account was blocked from sending ANY email because I violated the ToS!

I sent a snarky report to their customer support forum, but don't expect any resolution. My gmail account will pick up any e-mail I get there, and I don't need it to send e-mail.

I'm really glad I don't have to deal with the M$ world on any regular basis, I'd probably end up going back to snail mail.

Posted by: kamx3sj | June 9, 2010 8:47 PM | Report abuse

i'm a mac and i've been using ms office for mac for years. that is, until i returned to college and found that google docs pretty much has the basics covered. the self-contained feature ~alone~ blows all this other stuff out of the water. i will check out office dot live dot com, but i doubt that i'll use it. hey! wait. is it even mac compatible? you know, like google docs? is it just the active x thingy one needs on a browser?

Posted by: choqokat | June 9, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Isn't "live TV" about as dead as dead tree newspapers? Who cares? TIVO kills the commercials just fine. I've not seen a commercial in 3 years...Love it!

Posted by: moonwatcher2001 | June 10, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I tried it yesterday and had a couple of quick observations. First, it didn't work _at all_ with Google Chrome on my Mac (Chrome v. 5.0.375.55). Second, falling back to Safari 4, signing up for Win live id was a pain and it was hard to escape MS trying to get me to buy into all its Win Live stuff. Overcoming that, I found it easy to use and save with the narrowed down menus/buttons familiar. Want to insert a table, no problem, although formatting the table less easy. At the end of the day, with no way to change the save to docx, I'll be stuck copying and pasting into something else so the whole win live log in isn't worth the bother. Thanks Rob for raising and for having this forum for us.

Posted by: jbernstein3 | June 11, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

First off: Thanks to everybody who shared their experience with Office Web Apps here. You gave me some good ideas of what to look for (my review is now online and will be in Sunday's paper, as usual).


@blackasphalt: You can't see footnotes in the editing view because Word Web doesn't do footnotes at all.

@panamacanuck: Fascinating story! Care to expand on that in an e-mail to me?

@gbooksdc: That sneering "If you took some training" remark crystallizes what a lot of people hate about their IT departments. Thank you for capturing that mindset so well. (So you know, I've been using Word since it was a DOS app. And even I do, in fact, "get lost" in the program sometimes.)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | June 11, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

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