Microsoft offered users of Windows Live the chance to experiment with a limited technical preview of Office Web Apps, the online version of its Office productivity suite, on Sept. 17. The beta version of Web Apps will be released at some point during Fall 2009.
Microsoft has been developing stripped-down, browser-accessible versions of its productivity programs in an attempt to head off challenges from Google Apps and other free cloud-based applications.
The term "limited," as it applies to the preview, is no misnomer: users can view documents with Word Web App view and edit documents with PowerPoint Web App; and view, edit, create and co-author files with Excel Web App. A OneNote Web App will be added later, Microsoft executives told eWEEK, once it hits certain development milestones.
The final version of Office Web Apps will be available in the first half of 2010.
Office Web Apps will support "a wide range of browsers," according to Microsoft, including Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox. The platform will also support previous versions of Office, including 2003, 200, 2010 and Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac. Other functionality includes the ability for multiple users to simultaneously edit Excel Web App or OneNote Web App documents from within the browser.
A "Publish" feature lets users push Excel data or PowerPoint presentations to third-party Websites, blogs or wikis; the embedded portions of those documents will then be automatically updated whenever a user makes a change.
With regard to security, Office Web Apps will allow users to slot documents into password-protected folders, and then impose view-only or view-and-edit permissions to individuals or groups.
Office Web Apps, in a bid to feel familiar to regular Office users, features Office's standard toolbar into each of the applications. Microsoft has integrated Silverlight into the platform - however, unlike with Bing's Visual Search, Silverlight will not be required to run Office Web Apps.
However, the final version of Office Web Apps will also lack some of the functionality available in the full version of Office 2010, which Microsoft plans on offering as both a hosted subscription service and an on-premises application. Microsoft indicated during the Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans that Office 2010 would allow users to access their documents through their mobile browser and make certain lightweight edits.
The move is a radical one for Microsoft, which spent years developing Office as a primarily desktop-centered application. Redmond is likely hoping that Microsoft Live's 400 million subscribers - paired with 90 million Office annuity customers running the suite on-premises - will provide a substantial challenge to the threat of Google Apps.