Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal

Web-based editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are underwhelming at best

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Office Web Apps: The bigger picture
To be fair, there's an important point to be made here. If Microsoft has failed to deliver a Web-based user experience to compare with its desktop Office 2010 suite, none of its competitors have, either. And maybe that's what we're meant to take away from all this: If Microsoft can't do it, who can?

But if that's the message Microsoft hopes to send, something about it rings hollow. Take away the glitzy Office 2010 look-and-feel and the Office Web Apps achieve nothing that Google Docs hasn't achieved already. As document editors they not only can't match the desktop Office, but they don't perform any better than Google Docs; in some ways, they feel more awkward and half-baked. About the only advantage Microsoft can claim is that it can display Office 2010 files better than any of its competitors -- but we knew that already.

If Microsoft is sending a mixed message, it's because it wants to have its cake and eat it too. By offering Web-based apps with a familiar Office UI, it hopes to reassure customers who might be tempted to move to Google Docs. More than anything, however, the Office Web Apps merely underscore the Office brand, and in particular the Office file formats, which have served to cement Microsoft's market dominance for decades. So long as Microsoft does .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx better than anyone, wholesale migration to Google Docs will remain a chore, particularly for Microsoft's bread-and-butter business customers.

Will anyone use the Office Web Apps? Of course. SkyDrive is a useful way to share files with friends and colleagues, and the ability -- however limited -- to edit those files in the browser will be welcome to anyone who travels or switches computers often. Over time the Web Apps will improve, and they may eventually become an important part of the overall Office strategy.

If you're actively searching for an alternative to Microsoft Office lock-in, however, don't be distracted by the Office Web Apps. If you can deal with their primitive feature set, they may save you the cost of a desktop Office 2010 installation, but they do nothing to address the real issues at stake.

Microsoft Office Web Apps at a glance

  • Offers the familiar, professionally polished Office 2010 UI
  • Official support for Firefox, IE, and Safari browsers, but may work in many others
  • Unbeatable browser-based Office 2010 document viewing and printing
  • Online document storage, sharing, and publication via Windows Live SkyDrive
  • Edit many simple documents directly in the browser, including basic formatting
  • Available in ad-supported, hosted, or on-premise editions
  • Editors can't match viewers for document fidelity
  • Many common productivity suite features are incomplete or missing
  • No support for macros, graphs, or advanced workbook features in Excel Web App
  • PowerPoint Web App is more of a slideshow viewer than an editor
  • OneNote Web App offers nothing to compare to the desktop version
  • Support for 64-bit Windows is spotty
  • Exports documents in Office 2007 or later file formats only

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This article, "Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Windows, Microsoft Office, and applications at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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