Microsoft has begun testing some web-based Office applications that will be delivered through Office Live Workspace, its online adjunct to Microsoft Office. This is expected to give the company a closer competitor to online application suites such as Google Docs.
Microsoft will begin a public beta test of what it calls the "Office Web applications" later this year. They will allow users to create and edit new documents online from within a web browser, said Justin Hutchinson, group product manager for Microsoft's Office Client division, when interviewed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
That's a significant change from the capabilities in the beta of Live Workspace currently available. At present the software requires users to create documents using a copy of Office on their PC and then save them to the web, where they can then be shared with friends and colleagues.
Launched last March, Live Workspace marked the first tentative steps by Microsoft to put its lucrative Office franchise on the web. More than 1.5 million people have signed up for the beta since it was released.
Its capabilities are quite limited, however. Users must create new documents in the desktop versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and then save them to the web, where they are stored on Microsoft servers. Others can view the documents online, but editing them requires downloading the documents to a PC and opening them in Office.
That contrasts with online suites such as Google Docs and Zoho, where the entire process of creating, saving and editing documents is done from inside a browser.
But Microsoft has been testing a 'technical preview' of the Office web applications, which will allow users to create new documents online without needing to have Office on their PC. The web applications — Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote — include a task ribbon similar to that in Office, allowing people to perform light editing from inside their browser, including formatting text and tables.
Microsoft plans to roll out a beta of the web applications to Live Workspace testers later this year.
It doesn't describe the Office Web applications as a rival to Google Docs, with Microsoft positioning its online tools differently. While Google sees online applications as a way to free users from the desktop entirely, Microsoft sees them as a complement to Office in its software plus services model.
The software giant will recommend using the web applications in conjunction with Office on the desktop.
Nevertheless, users will not be required to have a client Office licence to create documents using the web applications, and the service will continue to be free for consumers, supported by advertising.
Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish says it's not surprising that Microsoft would offer document creation and editing through Live Workspace, since Google and others have challenged it with basic, more cost-effective productivity applications.