Office Web Apps, the browser-based, pared-down version of the Microsoft suite, now lets people co-edit documents in real time, a capability its main rival Google Docs has had for more than two years.
Until now, people could jointly edit Office Web Apps documents but changes had to be saved for other collaborators to see them. With the new live co-authoring feature, colleagues will see each other's modifications as they're made.
"Collaborative document editing is a very useful feature for any productivity application and one that will become increasingly popular as teams become more distributed," said industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research.
Microsoft, which announced the feature on Thursday, has also added auto-save to the suite's Word application. The other three applications -- Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- already had this feature.
"We're putting a lot of effort on Office Web Apps," said John Case, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Office marketing.
Now it remains to be seen how the real-time co-editing capability will be implemented, and how granular and deep will be the features for things like identifying collaborators, highlighting edits and posting threaded conversations.
Office Web Apps is available as a standalone, free suite, and is also included with Office 365, the cloud collaboration and communication suite for businesses that includes online versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync.
The applications are designed as a complement to the full-featured desktop Office productivity suite. Office Web Apps doesn't have as many applications, and the applications it does have aren't as feature rich.
However, Office Web Apps has given Microsoft an answer to Google Docs with an offering for users looking for browser-based, lightweight productivity apps.
In Google Docs, people can co-edit in real time word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, and now it'll be possible to do that in Office Web Apps' Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps.
The move is an important one for Microsoft, because it strengthens not only Office Web Apps, but Office 365 as well, making it a stronger competitor to Google Apps, which includes Docs, according to Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst.
"When customers evaluate Google Apps, one feature they find compelling is the real-time co-authoring in Docs," he said.
Perhaps more importantly, Office Web Apps has been tuned recently so that it works and renders particularly well in the iPad's Safari browser. Thus, it lets Microsoft offer a version of Office to iPad users, while it continues to develop a native, full-featured edition of the suite for the Apple tablet.
In that sense, Microsoft is also responding to Apple's recent decision to bundle its iWork productivity suite free with new Mac computers and iOS devices, Osterman said. "The fairly strong implication here is that Microsoft has acknowledged that it will not be able to make much of a dent in the iPad's market share in business, and so will have to live with that by making Office Web Apps play nice with the iPad," he said.
Microsoft is also launching a partner initiative for Yammer. Called Yammer Partner Enablement Program, it's intended for strengthening partners' abilities to sell, implement and support Yammer rollouts. In addition, Microsoft will bundle Yammer with all Office 365 Enterprise editions, which means all Office 365 Enterprise customers will receive licenses for the Yammer Enterprise product.
Microsoft bought Yammer in 2012 for US$1.2 billion to boost the enterprise social collaboration capabilities of SharePoint and of many of its other products, including Office, Outlook, Lync and Dynamics. The process of integrating Yammer with SharePoint and the others is ongoing.
Microsoft will continue to offer Yammer in standalone form but it has now decided to waive the purchasing of licenses for external users in customers' external enterprise social networks, such as the ones companies set up for interacting with partners and clients.
On Thursday, Microsoft also said that BNSF Railway, a large freight railroad network in North America, will roll out Office 365 to its 40,000 employees.
Microsoft is also announcing results of a survey conducted by Harris Interactive on Microsoft's behalf on the topic of work-life balance. More than half of the 1,000 U.S. office workers who participated said they need to get work done anywhere, and 37 percent said they do "their best thinking" away from the office, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft is using the survey results as the basis for a marketing campaign it's calling Get It Done, which pushes the message that Office 365 can help these workers. People can chime in on Twitter using the hashtag #GetItDone to share where they work when out of the office.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.