Free Office for the Web: A week early, four years late

Microsoft finally rolls out a worthy competitor to Google Docs -- and Office on the desktop is only slightly necessary

Depending on how you look at it, Microsoft has rolled out its free online version of its Office suite either one week early -- or four years late.

Free Office for the Web: A week early, four years late
Microsoft's Web-based Office Live Suite has finally debuted.

The release is early in that Office Live wasn't expected to go live until June 15, in sync with the release of Office 2010. But it's late in that Microsoft rival Google unveiled its free suite of productivity apps back in 2006.

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That delay has given Microsoft's competitor ample time to secure market share in the productivity-app realm, a space that Microsoft likely would have been able to dominate had it moved faster. After all, Microsoft has a long-standing reputation as a maker of fine desktop productivity apps, a distinction Google -- previously just a search engine company, you may recall -- did not similarly enjoy four years ago. Better late than never, right?

Microsoft's new Web-based Office Live suite, which will replace the previously free Microsoft Works, is composed of lightweight Web-based versions of its popular productivity apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Users familiar with Office should have no trouble jumping right in and finding the basic features they need to work. In fact, the clutter-free UI may come as relief to some users.

Remarkably, you don't need to have a copy of Office on your computer to use the Web suite, nor do you have to be running Windows -- or even Internet Explorer. All that's required is a free Windows Live account.

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