First glimpse: Microsoft Office Web Apps

Microsoft's Technical Preview of Web-based editions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint shows that Google is in for a fight

Microsoft unveiled the much anticipated Web-hosted versions of its Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications this morning, albeit with limited fanfare. The current versions are only a Technology Preview, designed to allow some tens of thousands of select users to kick the tires before the formal public beta begins later this year. While they lack some features, they're off to a strong start.

Microsoft's move to the Web comes as no surprise. Office has long been the Redmond-based giant's cash cow, but it faces increasing competition from low-cost alternatives, including the open source suite and particularly from Web-based offerings from the likes of Google and Zoho. With Google promoting the idea that all software can run inside the browser, Microsoft has little choice but to nip its rival's momentum in the bud.

[ Microsoft SharePoint 2010 brings some good looks and administrative polish that previous versions lacked. See "An early look at SharePoint 2010." ]

After all, Microsoft was there first. Outlook Web Access was the very first AJAX application, and it duplicated the functionality of the desktop version of Outlook admirably. Microsoft has taken much the same approach in crafting Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, but modern improvements in browser technology have made for an even more polished user experience.

Bringing Office to the browser
"Web Apps" is the official branding for the online versions of the Office suite, and the name fits. These are real, standards-based Web applications -- no Silverlight or ActiveX controls required. You don't even need Internet Explorer, but you do need a modern browser: Firefox 3.5, Internet Explorer 7, and Safari 4 are the minimum versions supported. Microsoft won't formally support Chrome or Opera, but reps say current versions of those browsers will probably work, too.

Word Web (above) and Excel Web (below) will lack some advanced features (such as pivot tables, in the case of Excel) but they otherwise do mighty fine imitations of their desktop-bound counterparts.
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