Microsoft closed the gap between its Office Web Apps and Google Docs somewhat today by adding co-authoring to the free Word Web App, letting multiple users edit a document simultaneously in the Web browser.
Microsoft reluctantly brought its lucrative Office software to the cloud with last year's release of Office Web Apps, but has held back from offering all the collaboration functionality you get from either Google Docs or the more expansive client versions of Microsoft's software.
Office Web Apps had allowed multiple users to edit Excel and OneNote documents simultaneously, but co-authoring of Word and PowerPoint documents required the client applications. Now Microsoft's word processor allows browser-based co-authoring, functionality Google already offered with Docs.
Microsoft designed its own co-authoring to let users see when others edit documents while avoiding people over-writing each other's edits.
"Most people don't want others to see their thoughts and edits in a polished document until they're ready," the Microsoft Office Web Apps team writes in a blog post. "At the same time, other contributors to the document want to review and digest changes being made before they react and respond instead of seeing others typing in the document where they're working.
"We designed co-authoring in the Word Web App on SkyDrive accordingly: When you're co-authoring, you always have a real time view into who is making changes and where these changes are occurring. As soon as you begin typing, the corresponding section of the document is locked and others are notified, placing you in control and freeing others from distraction. Contributors can hit 'save' at any time to see an updated view of all changes."
The co-authoring requires users to save documents on SkyDrive, Microsoft's consumer service for sharing files.
This may mean the browser-based co-authoring feature is off-limits for businesses, however, because business users of Office Web Apps within the larger Office 365 service use SharePoint Online rather than SkyDrive to store files. We're checking with Microsoft to see if that's the case. (UPDATE: Just as we thought, Microsoft has confirmed that users of Office Web Apps on SharePoint are unable to access co-authoring in the browser-based version of Word. Co-authoring can still be accessed in Word 2010 for Windows or Word 2011 for Mac.)
Microsoft still lags Google in mobile functionality. While Google Docs in a mobile browser lets you edit documents, Microsoft's Office Web Apps in a mobile browser only lets you view them. To edit Microsoft documents on an iPhone or Android device, you have to open them in a third-party app, because Microsoft's mobile Office application is available only for Windows phones.
Clearly, Microsoft is still grappling with the question of how much functionality to extend to the browser-based versions of Office, but is being forced to upgrade its online capabilities due to the success of Google Docs and its own users' demands. For consumers who want greater browser-based capabilities from Microsoft, the latest addition to Word Web App is a step in the right direction.
Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin
Read more about software in Network World's Software section