What are the most striking features of the new version of Office Web Apps? The ones that aren't there.
It isn't the fact that the Save button has been nixed (shades of Google Docs!) or that multiple users can edit the same document in real time and not stomp all over each other's work. It's how little -- as opposed to how much -- variation there is between OWA and its desktop counterparts.
That small margin makes a big difference.
Better collaborative editing than the desktop
Tony Bradley at PCWorld covers in detail all the new goodies in OWA, which still consists only of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The biggest is simultaneous co-authoring: Many users can log into OWA, open the same document, and work on it simultaneously. Flags within the document tell you where each user is.
One particularly smart touch here is how Microsoft has set different levels of editing granularity for each document type. For Word, it's a paragraph; for Excel, it's a cell; for PowerPoint, it's a slide. They're good commonsense defaults, and in my conversation with Microsoft's people, they hinted at the possibility that it could be made even more fine-grained.
From a practical standpoint, it's unlikely two people will attempt to edit the same sentence at once. But if Microsoft can nudge the line of thinking a smidge further in that direction, it's a sign of how completely Web apps could be able to eclipse their desktop cousins. For one, the desktop versions of these apps don't have anything like the simultaneous-editing features found in OWA -- a case where the Web app actually sports a feature superior to the desktop app.
This brings up the first of two big questions about OWA. Do Web apps need to displace their desktop counterparts?
The answer may be different depending on whether you're asking Microsoft or end-users. End-users may enjoy the convenience of OWA, but there comes a point where OWA simply can't deliver. The longer and more complex the document, the greater the odds OWA -- or your browser -- will simply gag.
There's little question that Microsoft needs to create a product portfolio off the desktop that's as valuable and rich as the one the company has created on it. But I doubt it can move people off desktop editions of Office and into OWA anytime soon, and not just because OWA's feature set is lacking.