There are many visions of our online future. Google and many others envision a world of cloud computing, where our programs and our data are both hosted online. Google Docs provides a word processor and spreadsheet, and online storage of files, all accessible from any computer anywhere. At the moment these services are mostly presented in an Internet browser but the technology is already appearing to let online programs run in their own windows like any other program, giving us access to programs that look elegant and can be accessed from anywhere. Google’s vision (and Microsoft’s nightmare) is a world where those programs run on any operating system, so you can have the same experience regardless of whether you’re running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux.
The universe of computer users includes many people and businesses who are reluctant to change their habits. The habit of running programs on our desktop computers will be hard to break, and Microsoft may do quite well with a vision that takes smaller steps – allowing us to keep our familiar programs but integrating online services to enhance them. Microsoft Office Live Workspace is one of the steps on the way to fulfilling Microsoft’s vision of “software plus service.”
Microsoft is betting that you’re comfortable with Word, Excel and Powerpoint installed on your computer. Office Live Workspace extends the familiar Office programs so files can be easily saved online, where they can be viewed by and shared with co-workers or third parties, or retrieved from a different computer to open in the Office programs on that computer. The online files can be accessed from a web browser but they can also be opened with a click on a toolbar button in the Office programs, just like you’re used to doing when you open your Documents folder.
Office Live Workspace uses your Windows Live ID and it’s currently free. Microsoft is mulling over the ways to make money – possibly advertising (although there are no ads now), possibly subscription packages (I’ll describe one
tomorrow Wednesday), and possibly “premium” packages for increased file storage space or other extra features.
This overlaps the Windows Live Skydrive service, which also offers free online storage and file sharing. Office Live Workspace is focused on Word, Excel & Powerpoint files – they can be previewed on the web site and opened directly from the web site into your Office program for editing, with no fumbling with uploads and downloads. There are rudimentary tools for collaboration – if two people have access to a file and one is editing it, the other will be told that the file has been “checked out.”
This has the potential to be extremely useful but I don’t suggest diving in without reading more about what to expect. Here’s a few links to help you get oriented: a comparison with Google Docs; an overview of the new service; comments from a well-informed blogger; Microsoft’s announcement at the official rollout. This is very exciting stuff! Small businesses may well want to start using this right away but there are issues of file security anytime files leave your local computers; this will require care to make sure documents are protected appropriately.