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.
Office Web Apps in the Lab
For the technical preview release, Microsoft provided me with a test Windows Live account. When I logged into the SkyDrive online storage service associated with the account, I found new options for creating, editing and viewing certain Office documents using Office Web Apps. Eventually, Microsoft’s Office Web Apps will be available in paid, hosted versions from Microsoft and its partners, as well as in a version that organizations can host for themselves.
For now, Word is view-only and OneNote isn’t accessible at all, so my attempts to create either of those file types brought up a “We’re working on it” screen. To try out the document-viewing capabilities of the online Word application, I uploaded a Windows Server reviewer’s guide. I was pleased to see that where Google limits word processing documents to 500KB, Microsoft accepts uploads of up to 50MB.
Once I’d uploaded my document, I was taken to a summary page somewhat akin to the Backstage view in Office 2010. If an Office Web App isn’t able to edit or view a document, you can still comment on it and download it to your computer. For instance, when I uploaded a document stored in the Open Document Format to which OpenOffice.org defaults to test whether Office Web Apps share in the ODF support that Office 2010 offers, I found that downloading and commenting were my only available operations.
When I opened my test Word document for viewing, the Word Web App promised improved performance and rendering if I installed Silverlight. I installed Novell’s Moonlight plug-in on my Firefox and Linux test machine in an attempt to partake in the promised Silverlight goodness, but the Moonlight plug-in did not appear to make a difference.
I also tested the Word Web App on a Windows XP machine running IE 8 and the Silverlight plug-in, but I didn’t notice a difference in rendering quality. Later in my tests, I found that certain effects in Excel rendered better in IE 8 than in Firefox, a difference that might have been due to the plug-in integration. I would like to see Microsoft work with the Mono team at Novell to ensure that any such optimizations are available cross-platform.
With the Silverlight detour behind me, I found that my test document rendered rather nicely in both Firefox and IE. I was able to scroll through with ease, with new pages loading promptly as I moved through the document. Links embedded in my test document, such as those in the table of contents, worked as I expected, and I could zoom in and out of the document in more or less the same way as with the desktop-based version of Word. Also, I was pleased to see that the Web version of Word mimics well the handy sidebar-based document search feature that’s new to Word 2010.
I wondered whether I could click the Open in Word button and access my document from OpenOffice.org. According to Microsoft, the online office applications use WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) as the underlying protocol for this integration, so such a connection should be possible. I wasn’t surprised when this didn’t work on Linux, but I wasn’t able to open Word (or Excel or PowerPoint) documents on Windows XP or Windows 7 machines running Office 2007 or 2010, either.
I’m chalking up these problems to the early state of the code. I was able to work around the issues by downloading my test documents, editing them in Office or-on my Linux system-in OpenOffice.org, and then uploading the files back to the Web.
I switched over to the Excel Web App next, and uploaded a spreadsheet saved in Microsoft’s binary XLS format for testing. I could view this spreadsheet without a problem, but when I tried to edit the file, a dialog box appeared instructing me to first convert the spreadsheet to the X M L-based XLSX format to which Office 2007 defaults.
With my spreadsheet duly converted, I was presented with a trimmed-down ribbon and a subset of the editing features available in the desktop-based version of Excel. On my Firefox/Linux machine, the bottom of the ribbon appeared slightly truncated, but not enough to interfere with my use of the application. As with the desktop-based version of Excel, I could hide or show the ribbon with a mouse click.
I added a simple formula to one of my spreadsheets, and the feature worked as expected, but I couldn’t figure out how to auto-fill my newly written formula across all the cells in the relevant column. Instead, I headed over to an instance of Excel 2010 running on a Windows XP virtual machine to auto-fill those cells, and opted to add some of Office 2010’s handsome new conditional formatting to a pair of my columns.
In IE, the conditional formatting appeared with full fidelity. Back in my Firefox browser, the conditional formatting also appeared, although without the gradient effect visible in IE.
I set out to sort and filter my table values, but the Excel Web App did not correctly guess the range of values I wished to manipulate, as the desktop version would have. I had to Shift-Page Down my way to selecting the correct range-an awkward process. I would like to see a text box for typing in a range of cells, such as, “A1:Z26.”
Once I’d clicked and dragged my range selection, the Excel Web App offered me a familiar set of sorting and filtering options, which worked as expected.
I turned last to PowerPoint, which in the tech preview supported viewing and limited editing of slide decks. I uploaded and played back a PowerPoint slide show and was impressed by how well the presentation was rendered in my browser, complete with build animations during playback. I managed to create a very simple PowerPoint slide deck, but the options to insert images were grayed out.
Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]