Microsoft's Office Web Apps - a long way from here

Inside the (half-baked) tech preview


The SharePoint connection

The technical foundation of Office Web Apps is the work Microsoft has done on the server-side Office for SharePoint. Excel Web Services already exists in SharePoint 2007, which may explain why Excel is the most advanced application in this Technical Preview. Microsoft is adding other services in SharePoint 2010, including Word and PowerPoint.

The further implication is that the API for Office Web Apps will be the SharePoint API and that many tools will not be available to Windows Live users. The preview uses Windows Live, though, and according to product manager Chris Adams, this partly explains why it is so rough. "The web applications on SharePoint are significantly more progressed than the ones on Windows Live, because of the different ship cycles between Windows Live and the Office SharePoint team," he told me.

SharePoint users - whether they're using the hosted or on-premise version - will get additional features, including document history, active directory integration, auditing, and backup/restore.

The Office Web Apps look great, present a familiar Office-like user interface, and generally render faithfully. The Silverlight-driven previews look particularly good, with smooth zooming and the ability to pop-out documents into a separate window. The main hesitations are around the limited editing features and the poor performance, which we must hope will be fixed before release.

Judging by this preview, Microsoft currently does not intend to compete with Google or others for cloud-based users. "We see the web apps, for most businesses, as an extension of the Office experience, not a replacement for them," says Adams, which is why the editing features on offer are more like touch-up facilities rather than full document tools. There is value in that, but it will do little to disrupt competitors who are offering freedom from desktop installations. At the same time, with these server-side Office engines Microsoft is laying the foundation for a more complete Web Office, which it will inevitably have to deliver as the competitive pressure increases. ®

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