When Microsoft offered the public a first look at next year's Office 2010 upgrade, one of the suite's most compelling new features-Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote-wasn't yet available for testing.
Microsoft recently pulled back the curtain on its Office Web Apps in the form of a limited-access technical preview, and according to eWEEK Labs' tests so far, the Office Web Apps suite-while studded with its fair share of tech preview warts-signals that Microsoft's counterattack on the online office encroachment of Google, Zoho and others is off to a solid start.
Heading into my tests of Office Web Apps, I had seen enough demonstrations of the applications to know that the Web versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint look a lot like their desktop-bound brethren, complete with ribbon-based interfaces and desktop-quality document rendering.
What remained to be seen was how much of the desktop functionality would carry over to the Web versions, and how well Microsoft would deliver on its promise to diverge from its Internet-Explorer-first Web application development policies. Microsoft has said that its Office Web Apps will perform as well on Apple's Safari and Mozilla's Firefox Web browsers as it will on Microsoft's own IE.
If Microsoft's new online office offering combines a feature set that's large enough to satisfy most users' needs with the browser support matrix the company has promised, Office Web Apps will open new doors for Office while making it significantly easier for organizations to support a mix of different desktop operating systems without giving up the applications they're accustomed to using.
Based on my tests so far, I've found that Microsoft has done a good job on the cross-platform part of the puzzle. I conducted the bulk of my testing on Firefox 3.5.3 running on Ubuntu Linux, and found that Web Apps performed about as well on this foreign-to-Microsoft environment as they did on IE 8 running on Windows XP and Windows 7. I also tested Web Apps using Google's Chromium Web browser, which Microsoft does not explicitly support but that hosted Office Web Apps quite well.
As for whether the range of features in Office Web Apps is broad enough to enable organizations to get their work done online, it's a bit too early to tell. At this stage, Web Apps clearly deserves the technical preview label: Word is view-only, PowerPoint supports basic edits with several grayed-out features, and various other snags and bugs abound.
Judging from the capabilities I've seen so far, the Office Web Apps suite should serve well as a tool for document sharing, viewing and light collaboration. The set of features available so far should be sufficient for some document creation tasks, but I'd like to see Microsoft continue to add muscle to these online office applications. Also, I would like to see Microsoft embrace a solution for enabling browser-based offline access and editing of Office Web Apps documents that's as supportive of multiple browser and operating system platforms as the online applications are.