Microsoft introduced a limited public look at Office Web Applications this week – a “Tech Preview” for a small group of testers of versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint designed to run in a web browser and open files stored online.

The bad news is that the preview is surprisingly weak. I thought Microsoft was far along in developing these services. I expected to see them in nearly final form, maybe released closely on the heels of Windows 7. Now I’m guessing it will be at least a few months before they’re ready for general release.

The good news is that there are clues about what they’re developing that make me optimistic. Despite the rough start, I think Microsoft is going to roll out an irresistible set of cloud services that will deeply change the world, especially for small businesses – and the web applications are only part of it.

This will take a couple of days to explain. Let me tell you a bit about the current state of Office Web Applications, then tell you where the cloud syncing programs appear to be going. That will make it easier to show you the thrilling conclusion next week.

Office Web Applications are browser-based versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote, presenting the look and feel of the classic Office programs in a web browser. They reportedly work equally well in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. When an Excel spreadsheet is opened in Office Web Applications, for example, the familiar ribbon runs across the top and a reasonable number of tools are available for editing and formatting the file – all in the browser, even if Excel isn’t installed on the computer.

At the moment, OWA opens and saves files stored in Windows Live Skydrive, Microsoft’s free online file storage. (Here are some notes about Skydrive, which now offers 25Gb of free storage space and integrates nicely with Windows Live Photo Gallery.) OWA will also work with various implementations of Sharepoint, which so far has been slow to make its way into very small businesses.

Office files are presented in the browser with all formatting intact, exactly the way they would look if you opened them in an Office program. It’s stunning, really.


Each web application has a button to open the file in your locally installed copy of Office. In the picture above, I opened a file from my document folder on Skydrive. I can click on the “Open in Word” button and the document will open in my local copy of Word, where I can work on it with all the tools from the full version of Word. When I click on “Save,” the file is saved directly back to my Skydrive folder.

There is just a hint of the features to come for collaboration – two people can edit an online Excel spreadsheet simultaneously. OneNote will also allow simultaneous editing when it appears.

The problem is that the Tech Preview is late and a lot of things are missing. The first optimistic announcements suggested that the web applications would be in broad testing almost a year ago. Here are just a few of the things that don’t work in the Tech Preview:

  • Word documents cannot be edited online. There’s supposed to be a ribbon bar in that screen shot above, right? At the moment, Word documents can only be viewed online or opened in a local copy of Word.
  • You can’t print from Excel or Powerpoint online.
  • OneNote is missing completely, although it will be added eventually.
  • Lots of basic functions are missing from Excel, including charts. They can be viewed in spreadsheets created offline but the web application does not have the controls to insert one into a spreadsheet.

My biggest problem with the web applications has to do with the mechanism to get files online. That’s the most important part in my mind and it’s currently a complete mess, but the rumors give me hope. I’ll give you some background about that separately.

Here’s an overview of Office Web Applications, and a review of the Tech Preview, each one liberally sprinkled with screen shots. I suggest you start to become familiar with this. If Microsoft can get it right, you’ll be using this right away – it’s a natural complement for the way we’re starting to want to access our files from multiple computers and devices and the way we’re sharing things.

More next week!

Share This