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 office.live.com.
(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?
June 8, 2010; 5:20 PM ET
Categories: Productivity , The Web , Windows
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