Office suites in the cloud: Microsoft Office Web Apps versus Google Docs and Zoho

Microsoft's fledgling Web-based productivity apps have one key advantage over SaaS rivals: amazing fidelity to the desktop-bound Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document formats

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Microsoft Office Web Apps: Office, everywhere
Although Google Docs and Zoho are both flawed, Microsoft could hardly have expected to take this competition lying down. The Redmond-based giant is currently in the process of readying a fully Web-based version of its Office productivity suite, due to launch simultaneously with the release of Office 2010. While the Office Web Apps are currently only available as a Technical Preview (with a formal beta program to be announced later this year), they're already shaping up to become a formidable challenge to Zoho and Google Docs.

Nowhere is this more evident than when you import your first document into Word Web App. Unlike its competitors, Microsoft's online suite reproduces .doc and .docx files with absolute fidelity, down to the smallest detail. The results are jaw-dropping. Fonts, page spacing, headers, footers, auto-text entries, footnotes -- everything appears exactly as it does in the desktop version of Word. Images show up where they should, even when placed above or behind text. Documents that mix page sizes, or that alternate portrait and landscape modes from page to page, load correctly. And, most miraculous of all after experiencing the competition, printing is flawless.

The PowerPoint files I tried yielded similarly impressive results. Images retained most of their quality, and text remained where it should. And unlike Google Docs or Zoho, the PowerPoint Web App managed to preserve animated transitions between slides.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Microsoft relies on ActiveX controls or other IE-only trickery to achieve all this, but you'd be wrong. Internet Explorer users are offered an improved file upload UI, but other than that, everything renders the same in all of Microsoft's supported browsers, which includes not just IE 7+ but Firefox 3.5+ and Safari 4+, as well. Just for fun I tried Google Chrome, too, and even though that browser isn't formally supported, everything looked fine. That's it; no add-ons or plug-ins are required -- but if you do install Silverlight, fonts look crisper and document load times improve somewhat.

But there must be a catch, right? Sure, and it's a doozy: Microsoft's applications don't really work. During the Technical Preview, documents imported into the online versions of Word and PowerPoint are read-only. Mind you, that's nothing to sneeze at; if you're looking for a surefire way to read and print Word 2007 documents from Linux, for example, these apps are already a godsend. But whether Microsoft can re-create the editing experience of its desktop apps remains to be seen.

The Excel Web app does allow editing, and the results are mixed. Like its siblings, it reproduced Excel files with far greater fidelity than either Google Docs or Zoho. This was especially true for embedded graphs, which rendered exactly as they do in Excel 2007, down to the fonts and coloring. Changing figures on the worksheet caused the graphs to be redrawn in real time, which was impressive to watch.

Microsoft's Word Web App (above) reproduces .doc and .docx files with absolute fidelity, down to the smallest detail. Excel Web App (below) also was impressive, but the results were more mixed. (Note: Click the images to enlarge them.)
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