Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal

Web-based editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are underwhelming at best

Is the era of desktop software over? With the general release of Office 2010 this week, Microsoft seems to be sending a mixed message. On the one hand, Office 2010 is the slickest, most feature-rich version of the suite to date. That's a clear challenge to Google, which offers a simpler, Web-based alternative to Office in the form of Google Docs. On the other hand, the simultaneous release of the Office 2010 Web Apps seems to vindicate Google's strategy by duplicating Office functionality on the Web. So which is it?

My first impression of the prerelease versions of the Office Web Apps was that they were remarkably polished. Office documents displayed flawlessly, with fidelity unmatched by any Web-based competitor. Many features were missing, however -- most notably the ability to edit documents -- so my ultimate assessment was reserved. Now that Office 2010 has shipped, I thought it high time to revisit the suite to see what Microsoft has actually delivered. Are the Office Web Apps a true competitor to Google Docs, a valuable addition to the Office product family, or merely a Web-based novelty?

[ Also on InfoWorld: From powerful productivity enhancers to important security safeguards, the new Microsoft Office has a number of features that businesses will love. See "Top 10 Office 2010 features for business." ]

Office Web Apps: Broad platform and browser support First off, the Office Web Apps' browser support is to be commended. Officially Microsoft is supporting only recent versions of Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, but in practice most standards-compliant browsers appear to work equally well (including Google Chrome). Gone, seemingly, are the days when Microsoft tried to shoehorn customers into IE with ActiveX controls and nonstandard Web features.

That's not to say Microsoft's offering is completely platform-agnostic, however. The Web Apps resemble Microsoft Office, but it's the Windows version of Office 2010, complete with the Ribbon interface. Users of the free Web Apps access their files through SkyDrive, Microsoft's online storage service, which presents files and folders using Windows-like fonts and icons. Business users access files via SharePoint Server 2010. Where the Google Docs UI is lean, spare, and generic, the Office Web Apps give enough gentle nudges toward Windows that Mac OS X users, in particular, may be put off.

Since the Web Apps feel most natural on Windows, I did most of my testing on Windows 7 running IE8, with Silverlight installed. Silverlight is not required, but it improves font rendering and enhances some features, such as file uploading. I also installed Office 2010 to test its integration with the Web Apps.

I chose to test the free, consumer version of the Web Apps because that version will have the broadest appeal. Microsoft will also offer two versions for business customers: a SaaS edition hosted on Microsoft's servers, and an on-premise rendition that comes bundled with site licenses of Office 2010. The core functionality of all three is identical, but both business versions offer additional collaboration features through integration with SharePoint 2010.

Office Web Apps: Favorable first impressions As mentioned earlier, the Web Apps are available for free to anyone with a Hotmail or Live.com account, via SkyDrive. Signing up for an account and accessing the Apps was easy enough, as was uploading and viewing files, but I found the SkyDrive UI to be somewhat inconsistent and occasionally confusing. For example, "Recent Documents on SkyDrive" showed documents I'd accessed recently, but not ones I'd uploaded recently. The View All link and the SkyDrive link both seemed to display the same files and folders, albeit with slightly different menus up top. Sometimes the File Properties view would allow me to scroll through files other than the current one and sometimes it wouldn't, depending on the context.

Nor was I particularly fond of the prominent advertising on the SkyDrive pages. Naturally Microsoft needs to pay for its free services, but this seemed to offer a mix between legitimate advertisers and the dregs of Web marketing, including dating services and garish, animated ads for online college degrees. Fortunately, there were no ads on the Office Web App pages themselves -- for now, at least.

The Windows-like UI and prominent advertising will put off some users, but Windows SkyDrive and the Office Web Apps are available 100 percent free of charge.

Clicking on a file in SkyDrive revealed the same remarkable, faithful rendering of Office documents I saw in the prerelease versions. This is where the Office Web Apps really shine. Customers who lack software that supports the newer, XML-based Word, Excel, and PowerPoint file formats -- including Linux users -- can now use the Web apps to view and print those files with perfect fidelity, even when they include complex formatting.

Users of 64-bit Windows, however, will be frustrated by some shortcomings. Printing, which produces truly admirable output on 32-bit Windows, doesn't work from 32-bit browsers running on 64-bit Windows 7, presumably because of a mismatch with its 64-bit printer drivers. One work-around is to print from 64-bit IE8, but even that only produces a PDF file, rather than sending output directly to the printer. It's also a partial consolation, because other features, such as opening Word Web App files directly in Word 2010, seem to work from 32-bit browsers only. Printing from Firefox on Ubuntu Linux yielded a PDF as well.

The Word Web App does a truly impressive job of rendering Word documents, even when fed a real torture test.

Word Web App and Excel Web App: Mixed results Viewing and printing documents are all well and good, but the real test of any Web-based app suite is how it handles document creation and editing. The prerelease versions of the Office Web Apps could only edit Excel documents, so I was eager to see how the other Apps would hold up. Unfortunately, the results were very mixed.

The Word viewer handled my complicated test document flawlessly, but the browser-based editor fell far short of the mark. First it wouldn't open my document because I had used Word's Track Changes and Comments features while editing it. No problem; I opened the document in Word 2010, removed the offending portions, and tried again. This time it worked, but the document I saw in the editor looked almost nothing like the one I had uploaded. An error message warned me that it was a "complex document" -- guilty as charged -- and advised me to edit it in Word 2010.

Complex documents that look great in Word Web App's viewer mode show their true colors in the editor. Good luck making sense of this mess, but Microsoft offers a suggestion: Open it in Word 2010.

On the other hand, the Word Web App editor handled less-complex documents fairly well. Text looked close to how it looked in the original files, and there were even tools for working with tables and some limited image editing capabilities. Disappointingly, however, styles and formatting that were visible in the online viewer disappeared in the editor, although making basic text changes didn't seem to corrupt any formatting when I re-opened the same file in Word later.

Editing was also a little cumbersome. Page margins always extended to the width of the browser window, for example, and text rewrapped whenever I resized the window. Text selection seemed rather slow and clumsy, even by normal browser standards. My overall impression was that this was a clever, Web-based text editor -- which of course it is. Still, the Word branding had me expecting something closer to a real word processor.

Excel has arguably received the most attention from the Office Web Apps team, having been the first one made available to reviewers. The final version worked much like that earlier preview -- and that's not entirely a good thing. Similar to the Word Web App, it worked well for simple spreadsheets, but by the same token, its shortcomings were glaring. It was able to display files that contained shapes, objects, or VBA macros to a limited degree, but it couldn't edit them. Likewise, while embedded graphs would update when I changed data, there was no way to create new graphs from within the browser. And forget about pivot tables or other advanced features. In a nutshell, while Excel Web App will keep a basic ledger just fine, if you've grown even a little bit creative with your Excel workbooks, don't expect much.

Changing data in Excel spreadsheets updates the corresponding graphs automatically in Excel Web App. They look great, but don't bother looking for a button to create them: You can't.

PowerPoint Web App and OneNote Web App: Epic fail Disappointment became a theme as I used the two flagship Web apps, and that theme was only underscored as I moved on to the others. Perhaps seeing the Office 2010 UI in my browser distorted my expectations, but if the Word and Excel Web Apps seemed limited, the PowerPoint Web App was thoroughly mediocre.

Uploaded presentations looked mostly right in the browser-based PowerPoint viewer, even when slides contained animated transitions. Those transitions were invisible to the editor, however, which only seemed to offer basic text editing and no support for multimedia. When creating a new presentation I was able to choose between various project themes, but once I made a selection, there didn't seem to be any way to change it later. Buttons to insert images and Smart Art were grayed out, and opening SkyDrive-hosted presentations in PowerPoint 2010 didn't work, no matter what platform I tried.

Some fairly basic features are grayed out in the PowerPoint Web App's editor. Maybe next time?

But even that lackluster performance was nothing compared to the utterly dismal OneNote Web App, which was so bad I could hardly find a way to test it. I could create a new notebook in the Web editor, but as with the PowerPoint Web App, trying to open those notebooks in OneNote 2010 yielded only an error. Similarly, when I tried to upload .one files to my SkyDrive, it gave them the OneNote icon but wouldn't let me view or edit them.

OneNote 2010 includes an option to automatically share notebooks on SkyDrive, so I decided to try that instead. Unfortunately, I had already configured my copy of OneNote 2010 to use one Windows Live account, and there didn't seem to be any way to make it switch to a new one. I was stuck using the wrong account. It didn't matter, though, because one of the two files I tried to share showed up empty in the OneNote Web App, while the other was marked as corrupt. It was true -- the process of trying to share the notebook had apparently rendered it unusable on my PC, too. (Fortunately I had a backup.) File format mismatch wasn't the problem, either; OneNote 2010 forces you to upgrade your notebooks to the 2010 file format before it will let you share them on SkyDrive -- but even then, apparently, you can't share them.

So where did that leave me? The OneNote Web App let me compose basic outlines with bullets and numbering, insert pictures from my hard drive, mark text with hyperlinks, and organize my notes into pages and sections. But any word processor can do that, and any OneNote power user will recognize how utterly pathetic that sounds compared to the full feature set of the desktop OneNote application. I couldn't click where I wanted to on the page, I couldn't drag and drop, and support for recording or handwriting was nonexistent. Speaking as a regular OneNote 2010 user, I have to say the OneNote Web App was a waste of both bits and bandwidth.

Can your word processor do this? Of course it can. The OneNote Web App doesn't deserve the name.

Office Web Apps: The bigger picture To be fair, there's an important point to be made here. If Microsoft has failed to deliver a Web-based user experience to compare with its desktop Office 2010 suite, none of its competitors have, either. And maybe that's what we're meant to take away from all this: If Microsoft can't do it, who can?

But if that's the message Microsoft hopes to send, something about it rings hollow. Take away the glitzy Office 2010 look-and-feel and the Office Web Apps achieve nothing that Google Docs hasn't achieved already. As document editors they not only can't match the desktop Office, but they don't perform any better than Google Docs; in some ways, they feel more awkward and half-baked. About the only advantage Microsoft can claim is that it can display Office 2010 files better than any of its competitors -- but we knew that already.

If Microsoft is sending a mixed message, it's because it wants to have its cake and eat it too. By offering Web-based apps with a familiar Office UI, it hopes to reassure customers who might be tempted to move to Google Docs. More than anything, however, the Office Web Apps merely underscore the Office brand, and in particular the Office file formats, which have served to cement Microsoft's market dominance for decades. So long as Microsoft does .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx better than anyone, wholesale migration to Google Docs will remain a chore, particularly for Microsoft's bread-and-butter business customers.

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