The road to Office 365: Office Web Apps go global ... sorta

With Microsoft's second-largest cash cow headed inexorably to the cloud, the hype machine has just begun to grind

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The original Office Web Apps -- stripped-down online applications that bear some semblance to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- drew few accolades. (See, for example, Neil McAllister's "Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal.") They've been improved a bit since the initial launch. For example, you can now print a Word document while you're editing it. The Excel Web App now lets you autofill a range. The new PowerPoint supports clip art. Be still my beating heart. The nature of these "upgrades" speaks volumes about the limitations of the free online applications.

I still can't type anything in the online OneNote without having the application freeze. Maybe I just type too fast.

Office Web apps work on Office documents, and those documents have to be online before you can use them. That's why you'll see OWA tied inextricably into SkyDrive, Hotmail, Facebook (through, or SharePoint. The files have to live somewhere. As Office 365 goes into the final stretch, we'll see more options for hosting the files -- no doubt, with price tags attached.

Much to its credit, Office Web Apps work on modern versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, although they don't work on iPads. The Apps render documents well, in my experience, but editing gets difficult because of graphic placeholders and very rudimentary Excel graphs. Nobody would accuse the Office Web Apps of being WYSIWYG applications. If you have the underlying Office 2010 application installed (for example, if you're trying to edit a Word document with the online Word app and Word 2010 is installed on your PC), one click will put you in the application's editor, with the document pulled down to your PC. That gives you WYSIWYG editing, but then you lose the online collaboration capabilities.

In short, global or not, Office Web Apps are very stunted substitutes for the apps themselves. Will they, their deskbound namesakes, and a bit of high-tech glue suffice to draw companies to Office 365? Let's see what the hype machine has to say.

This story, "The road to Office 365: Office Web Apps go global ... sorta," 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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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