Microsoft launches Office Web Apps preview

Invite-only test available to 'thousands;' public beta to follow later this year

Microsoft today launched a limited beta test of its Office Web Apps, the company's first public unveiling of its rival for Google's Web applications.

Dubbed a "technical preview" by Microsoft to denote that it's by invitation only, Office Web Apps will be available on the company's Windows Live site via a special "Documents" tab, a company spokeswoman said. "Tens of thousands have been invited to participate in the Technical Preview," said the spokeswoman in a reply to questions.

"This is earlier than I expected," said Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash.-based research company that specializes in tracking Microsoft's moves. "I thought we wouldn't see this until the SharePoint conference at the end of October. Maybe the recent Google moves had some bearing on Microsoft's timing."

Helm's reference was to Google's announcement Tuesday that the search giant will offer online services next year, including Google Web Apps, that are specially designed for U.S. government agencies.

Office Web Apps includes lightweight, online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the desktop Office suite's word processor, spreadsheet and presentation maker, respectively. In July, Microsoft announced that the online applications would be available free-of-charge on Windows Live and to workers at companies with an Office Software Assurance plan. The online editions will also be available as a paid subscription service for firms that don't buy into Software Assurance.

Microsoft gave the three applications available in the preview their official titles today: Word Web App, Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App.

Nick Simons, a Microsoft program manager for Office Web Apps, called the functionality of the online software "modest" today on a company blog. Initially, testers won't be able to edit Word documents online, only view them, although they can create, view and edit Excel worksheets and PowerPoint presentations.

OneNote Web App, a scaled-down version of Office's note taker, will be added later, Simons said.

Michael Schultz, Microsoft's director of marketing for Office, echoed Simons. "They aren't feature-complete yet," he acknowledged in a Q&A Microsoft created, and then posted, to its press site. "The OneNote Web App and additional Office Web App features, including further integration with Microsoft Office 2010, will be available at a later date."

Microsoft plans to open Office Web Apps to testing by the general public, but it has not set a date for that beta other than to that it will be available before the end of this year. Nor has the company slated a launch date for the online suite. It's expected, however, that Microsoft will unveil the final versions of the Web applications when it ships Office 2010 sometime in the first half of 2010.

Office Web Apps support Internet Explorer (IE) 7 and IE8; Firefox 3.5 on Windows, Mac and Linux; and Safari 4.0 on the Mac.

Microsoft's entry into the Web application space has been long in coming, and faces competition from the likes of Google and Zoho. Google, in fact, has made several recent moves to preempt Office Web Apps, including a sync service between its online software and Office's e-mail client, Outlook, as well as the promise Tuesday that it will tailor its Google Web Apps to fit the needs of federal government agencies.

"But Microsoft and Google see Web applications differently," argued Helm. "Google is trying to catch up with Microsoft's desktop applications, maybe cover 80% of their functionality. But they've got a long ways to go.

"Microsoft is instead trying to promote an adjunct to Office to use when you're collaborating with people, and to handle some commenting and formatting, and maybe entering a little text," Helm continued. "Microsoft has a much narrower view of what Web apps are supposed to do. They're very carefully limiting the Web apps, so they really aren't a substitute for the desktop."

The technical preview is available only in English and Japanese; other language-specific versions will be rolled out this fall.

Users can add their name to a list for notification when the public beta is available on Microsoft's Office 2010 site.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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