Office Web Apps improve, but they remain Web apps

Microsoft's plan to make Office Web Apps truly useful is admirable, but it's unlikely to give us what we really need

If there's one thing I've always hated about Web-based productivity apps, it's everything associated with the word "Web." Trying to shoehorn the functionality of a full-blown desktop program into a Web browser, with all of its attendant inconsistencies and shortcomings, is a little like jamming all of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony into a music box.

This isn't to say Microsoft (and other folks) haven't tried, of course. Each time I find myself faced with Office Web Apps -- or Google Docs, for that matter -- I see a suite that's growing incrementally more polished and capable over time. But the gap between what they aren't able to do yet and what I can already do with my desktop edition of Word is still enormous.

I doubt anyone, not even Microsoft, can close that gap all at once. But the company sure intends to try.

In yesterday's post on the Office 365 blog, Amanda Lefebvre, technical product marketing manager for Office Web Apps, announced several new improvements to Microsoft Office Web Apps. Some were vague. A couple were more specific and thus that much more intriguing.

"Our goal is to deliver Office Web Apps that people can rely on to create polished Office documents from start to finish, all from the Web," Lefebvre claims.

Improvement No. 1 was "[prioritizing] features that make it easier to work via the Web," such as adding a find and replace feature in Word Web App. That's right: A feature that I've had in not only the desktop edition of Microsoft Word, but also in Notepad, wasn't available in Word Web App until now. (Word Web App had find, but not find and replace.)

Improvement No. 2 was adding support for Office Web Apps to Android devices by way of the mobile version of Google Chrome. In other words, forget about a native Android version of Office; it's easier (and more profitable) for Microsoft to deliver Office in a platform-neutral format. No word about OWA on Chrome in iOS, though, which makes me wonder if that's because of a feature lag between Chrome for iOS and Chrome for Android.

Improvement No. 3, and one of the few things that makes Office Web Apps genuinely appealing, is new live co-authoring tools. If multiple people have a document open, changes are reflected in real time across everyone's screen. This feature was available for the OWA editions of Word and Excel before, and I loved it. Now it's being added to OWA's implementation of PowerPoint.

Here's what I pondered: How is it that we were able to have, say, live collaboration in OWA Word before having find and replace? I doubt it was a question of technical feasibility, since Google Docs has had find and replace since 2009.

This post makes it clearer that the biggest drivers for feature development in OWA are split between two poles: What people find most immediately useful, and what Microsoft can implement properly across platforms in a Web browser.

That'll be hard to reconcile. Especially since the one thing that Microsoft can't control is the development of Web browsers on all those other platforms -- the very places where a good deal of Microsoft's originally captive market is now headed.

But good luck to Microsoft all the same, because any instance of a Web app that actually works like its desktop counterpart -- what a concept! -- is yet another model for others to emulate.

This story, "Office Web Apps improve, but they remain Web apps," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.