Hands-on: Microsoft's Office Web Apps

Microsoft's online competitor to Google Apps looks good, but lags in some significant features.

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Your Office home in the cloud

Office Web Apps uses Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive online service as its home base. In order to use Web Office Apps, you navigate to a special area of SkyDrive, where you get 25 GB of free storage space.

From here, you can go to a My Documents page where you can create new Office documents, upload files, create folders, and manage sharing and permissions.

Click any document, and you'll see a screen that shows basic information about the document, including file size, the date it was created or uploaded, the last date it was worked on and so on. The page also lets people make comments about the document. You can view the document, edit it, download it to your computer, move it to a different folder, copy it and rename it.

Office Web Apps

The My Documents page.

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Once you start using it, Office Web Apps looks and feels much like the client-based version of Office; in fact, it looks more like a polished client application than a Web-based one. It displays Office documents in full fidelity so that they look exactly the same way online as they do on your PC.

Excel

Excel is the furthest along of all the Web Apps in approaching the suite's final feature set and is currently the only app that lets multiple people work on a document at the same time.

It looks much like the Office 2010 version of Excel (including the Ribbon that users tend to love or hate and the redesigned Office button in the upper left-hand part of the screen). In other words, if you use Excel 2007 or later, you already know how to use the Web App version. Creating a spreadsheet, inserting formulas, handling tables, recalculating the workbook, etc. work exactly the same in the Web App version as they do in the client version. When you import a worksheet, it looks exactly as it does on the client-based version, including charts.

Office Web Apps

Online Excel documents look very much like their desktop equivalents.

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At this point, it's also a very stripped-down version of Excel. There's no way to create or edit charts, for example, and most of Excel 2010's features -- such as advanced formulas, control of page layout, ability to mark up and review spreadsheets -- are missing.

The Office 2010 version of Excel has seven separate tabs on the ribbon; currently, the Web App version has only two, and those two don't have all the features that their equivalent tabs have in Office 2010. However, if you import a worksheet that has a chart, and you edit the underlying data for that chart, the chart will automatically change to reflect the new data, just as it does in the client version of Office.

I ran into a number of problems when I tested this version. I could not paste data or text into a spreadsheet, for example, a problem that presumably will be fixed further on in the development cycle. In addition, I was able to view but not edit .xls files -- currently, you can only edit files in the newer .xlsx format. The same holds true for PowerPoint and Word -- you can only edit .pptx and .docx files.

Excel is the only one of the Office Web Apps that has collaboration enabled, and it worked as advertised. I was able to work on the same spreadsheet on both a Mac and PC simultaneously, and was able to see the changes on each machine made on the other.

However, there is no apparent way to lock the worksheet, which means that two people can work on the same cell simultaneously, overriding each other's work. In addition, when multiple people are working on a spreadsheet at the same time, the undo and redo functions do not work, making it more difficult to get the spreadsheet back to its original form. This is a problem that needs to be addressed in future versions.

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