Microsoft Office Web Apps takes great leap toward Office equality

Newest version of Office Web Apps boasts live collaborative editing, but still trails Office for Windows in other areas

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.

The browser is still the bottleneck

The big reason OWA's feature set is lacking, compared to full-blown Office, is not because Microsoft is trying to gouge everyone not running Windows. It's because the very Web browser environment in which it's trying to create OWA is still so fragmented -- even in 2013! -- that it's ferociously hard to guarantee consistent behavior across browsers, let alone platforms.

Some of this can be inferred from the fact that OWA won't work in anything but read-only mode on phone browsers. Tablets are another story, though, since the browser situation there is a little more robust. Bradley used OWA on the iPad without noticeable issues, and Microsoft plans to add editing support for Android tablets over the next several months. (This also implies that OWA would be available for Firefox OS devices, although that platform still needs some ironing out.)

All this brings up another, even bigger question: Is Microsoft going to deliver as much of Office as it can (outside of Windows, that is) in the form of OWA rather than as platform-native apps for iOS or Android?

If Microsoft does so, it would mean having to develop for only one big moving target -- the Web -- instead of a slew of smaller ones. And it might well be the single most profitable way for Microsoft to move Office forward, instead of fighting for an ever-shrinking slice of desktop pie.

More worrying is whether some of the genuinely useful features in OWA, like the live simultaneous editing, are going to be left in the Web product exclusively and not back-ported to the desktop version of Office. That would leave a bad taste in the mouth. People want the option of using OWA, and not feel as if they're obliged to use it -- at least not yet.

OWA hasn't quite made it as a replacement for full-blown Office, but it's flanking it all the more impressively with each revision. What's more critical than OWA's own development path is how the choices made for it will shape the future of Office as a whole product, and not just as a nifty way to edit documents on the go.

This article, "Microsoft Office Web Apps takes great leap toward Office equality," 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 business technology news, follow on Twitter.