Microsoft finally unveils browser-based Office apps

Take that, Google! In a PDC preview, Microsoft shows off Office Web apps, including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

Will they? Won't they? Ever since Google Apps arrived on the scene, Microsoft has been dogged by the question of when it might release browser-based versions of its Office apps. At the PDC (Professional Developer Conference) in Los Angeles, the answer finally came in the form of Office Web applications -- lightweight versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote (a notes and tasks app) delivered through the browser.

Surprisingly, Office Web applications run in Firefox and Safari, not just Internet Explorer. Far less shocking: You won't get Office Web apps free and clear as you do Google apps. According to Senior Communications Director Janice Kapner, of the Information Worker Group, the pricing details have yet to be worked out, but she expects that an advertising-supported version will be available through Office Live, with volume licensing and subscription-based options for business customers.

[ Office Web applications have arrived. Have a close look at the new browser-based versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in InfoWorld's slideshow | For more news from Microsoft's event, check out InfoWorld's 2008 Professional Developer's Conference special report ]

Mainly, however, Office Web apps are meant to be an extension to the locally installed Microsoft Office (in its next edition), the same way Outlook Web Access provides access to mail without the fat Outlook client. Users could stop at a public kiosk, for example, and fire up a browser-based Office Web app to view or edit their data. In other words, the next version of Office will enable access to desktop files over the Web, although Kapner said the details of how that will work would be revealed at a later date.

Senior Vice President Chris Capossela, of the Microsoft Business Division, characterized the offering as part of Microsoft's have-it-your-way approach to computing, where customers have a choice of locally installed software or cloud-based applications. "People can benefit from Office as a service on their browser, as a downloadable application on their phone, and as software on their PCs," he said.

Kapner described the demoed apps as a "sneak preview" of the Web application portion of the next version of Office. A "technical preview" of those apps "where people can play with the bits" will be available later this year, she said.

Why is Microsoft announcing this now when it could have brought out browser-based versions of its apps long ago? "We've been figuring out the right thing to build for quite some time," said Kapner. "The company had to feel good about its [services] strategy across the company. We had to make sure our Office strategy fit with the larger strategy."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.