First Look: Office Live Workspace offers collaboration with a side of confusion

Some good collaboration features, but there are problems that still need to be ironed out

Microsoft Corp.'s Office Live Workspace, just released into beta, makes it easy for small businesses, workgroups and organizations to collaborate online and share documents. Even individuals who want to track projects and access documents from more than one PC will find it useful. It's a surprisingly sophisticated service, and although there remain rough edges and puzzling oversights (which may or may not be addressed in the commercial release), it's a very impressive piece of work, especially considering its price tag -- free for the moment.

The service is not competing against online versions of office suites such as Google Docs or Zoho. It doesn't offer online versions of Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Rather, it's a way for departments, small offices and individuals to share documents and collaborate online.

Office Live Workspace lets you store documents, give other people access to those documents and collaborate with other people on the documents. To use it, you'll need a Windows Live ID. Once you sign up for the ID and service, you get your own workspace on the Web, which you can use to share documents and projects with others. Within this main area, you create individual workspaces for all your projects and documents.


Office Live Workspace lets you share documents. (.)

Office Live Workspace is not primarily designed for creating documents directly from the Web. Although it has some rudimentary tools for creating documents, you primarily use the site by uploading documents from your PC or by creating documents using Office on your local PC and then saving them online. This integration with Office is both the site's greatest strength and an area that still needs some work, as we detail below. The site also includes tools for creating and editing a variety of day-to-day documents without having to use Office, including notes, lists, contact lists and event lists.

Once you've established your documents online, you can then invite other people to share them and set sharing rules -- for example, allowing certain people to edit documents and allowing others only to read them. The site doesn't have more sophisticated collaboration tools, such as those for managing workflow or for setting sophisticated rights to documents. That's not what it's designed for; Microsoft would prefer that you fork over the money for SharePoint Server for that.

Instead, Office Live Workspace is designed for small businesses and workgroups. Even individuals will find it useful, because it gives them access to their most important documents from any PC -- and lets them work together with organizations such as church groups or sports teams.

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