FAQ: How to tell if you're on the Office Web Apps invite list

Also, what works now, what's missing and when it will be open to everyone

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday launched the first public preview of its long-awaited online version of Office, dubbed -- drum roll, please -- Office Web Apps.

But the so-called Technical Preview -- Microsoft's way of saying it's available only by invitation -- raises more questions than it answers, if only because it's decidedly a work in progress.

What's in the preview? What isn't? Can you use the desktop software you love, or loath, alongside the online version, or do you have to pick one?

We have answers to the pressing questions, including the biggest one: How do I get in on the preview?

Can I play with the Office Web Apps Technical Preview? Although this first round of testing may be open to "thousands," as the company said, not everyone's eligible. Among those invited to participate are some Windows and Office Live users, other select beta testers and Microsoft partners.

Most testers have been pulled from Windows and Office Live, so you'll need to have an account. To find out if you got lucky, surf to the site, click on the More menu and select SkyDrive. Finally, click on the Documents folder. If you're one of the chosen, you'll see an invite message in a blue bar at the top of the SkyDrive display.

By the way, the Technical Preview is for the consumer version of Office Web Apps, the one that will be available free-of-charge next year.

I wasn't picked. When do I get my chance? Later this year -- Microsoft stuck with "fall" yesterday -- Office Web Apps will shift into a public beta, open to all. Microsoft's not saying anything more than that, other than to point to a page on its site where you can add your name to a notification list.

What applications are available now? Word Web App, Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App work now, but the fourth program, OneNote Web App, is coming later.

When Technical Preview testers select New from the Document folder's menu, then choose Microsoft OneNote notebook, a message pops up that reads "Still to come ... OneNote is not currently available. We are working on it though."

And yes, those are the official names Microsoft has slapped on its Web software. We know, not exactly flashy, but then Google Web Apps isn't any snappier.

Zoho easily wins the name game battle.

What is working? I've heard they're crippled That may be too strong a word -- no pun intended -- since Microsoft hasn't spelled out what will make it in the beta or final versions, but not all planned features are functional in the Technical Preview.

In Word Web App, for example, you can't create a new document, but you can view and print Word files you've uploaded to SkyDrive. There's no provision for editing Word documents online at the moment either.

"We still have a bunch of work to do [on Word Web App]," said Chris Bryant, a group product manager for Office, in a video posted on Microsoft's site. "To prevent people from having a bad experience out of the gate, we wanted to make sure that it was solid enough to do a tech preview. Unfortunately we had to make the hard decision to turn off editing."

You can create new worksheets and presentations in Excel Web App and PowerPoint Web App, as well as view and edit them. There's no printing in either Excel or PowerPoint on the Web, however.

And you can't "publish" documents to a Web site or blog in the Technical Preview, although that feature, like others, will be added before Office Web Apps goes final.

Can I try out Office Web Apps, either now or later, on the Mac? What about Linux? Yes to both.

In fact, Microsoft doesn't set system requirements by operating system, but instead by browser. To run the Web versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you must use Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) or IE8 -- they're only on Windows, naturally -- Mozilla's Firefox 3.5 on the Mac or Linux, or Apple's Safari 4.0 on the Mac.

Opera and Chrome users are out of luck, as are the handful of people running Safari for Windows.

What about accessing Office Web Apps documents from my phone? Can I do that now? No. And Microsoft's not saying when you will, or on what handsets and using which browsers.

Microsoft's promised that Office Web Apps will support mobile browsers, but it declined to get specific about which and when. "We are still in early phases of development and will share additional details around specific browsers and functionality at a later date," a company spokeswoman said.

To muddy the waters even more, Microsoft's also committed to something called Office Mobile, which lets users open and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on new Windows Mobile 6.5-powered handsets slated to go on sale Oct. 6.

How does Office Web Apps work with the desktop Office I use? The in-development Office 2010 -- which moved into its own Technical Preview phase two months ago -- will include the ability to save files to SkyDrive, where they'll be accessible in a browser via Office Web Apps. Office 2010 will also be able to open files stored online without firing up a browser, Microsoft said.

A slew of older Office editions can be used to create documents suitable for uploading to SkyDrive, where they can then be edited, viewed, printed and shared through Office Web Apps. The list: Office 2000, Office XP, Office 2003 and Office 2007 on Windows; and Office for Mac 2008.

Because Office Web Apps uses the Office Open XML file formats -- like .docx and .xlsx -- which debuted in Office 2007, files created by earlier editions of the desktop software are automatically converted to OOXML, raising the possibility of formatting glitches. Microsoft, however, has promised file-format fidelity between the desktop and online versions of Office.

Only Office 2010, however, can open Office Web Apps documents for editing when you click the "Open in Word," "Open in Excel" or "Open in PowerPoint" button on the Web Apps editions.

What about the enterprise? Did Microsoft forget us? No, although you'll have to wait until Office Web Apps moves into public beta to preview the enterprise version.

Companies with Software Assurance plans will be able to host Office Web Apps using an on-premises SharePoint Server, while other businesses can purchase subscriptions to the online edition from Microsoft Online Services.

Office Web Access will be provided free-of-charge to Software Assurance customers, but prices for the subscription access to Office Web Apps have not been set.

If Microsoft gives away Office Web Apps, why would I ever buy the desktop edition again? Won't the online version cannibalize sales of the oh-so-profitable Office? To answer the second question first, Microsoft said it doesn't expect Office Web Apps to eat into sales of its desktop software.

"We think it's quite the opposite," a spokeswoman maintained. "Services are an opportunity to grow our business. Office Web Apps are designed to enhance the experience for our users."

One analyst agreed. "Microsoft has carefully limited the Web apps," said Rob Helm of Directions on Microsoft in an interview Thursday. "You'll have a fighting chance to do some commenting and some formatting, and maybe entering some text, but in Microsoft's mind, it's not about replacing Office, not even the lowest-priced Home and Student Edition."

As for your first question, well, that's up to you and, we suspect, time.

When will Office Web Apps leave Technical Preview and enter beta? When will Microsoft take it final? Microsoft's being vague in answers to both questions, saying only that the beta, which will be open to all comers, will go live this fall, while the final version will be available simultaneously with Office 2010, scheduled to ship sometime in the first half of 2010.

For more information about the Office Web Apps Technical Preview, check out Computerworld's first-take review.

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