The Office Web Apps collection, Microsoft's eagerly awaited answer to Google Docs, Zoho, and other Web-based productivity tools, is still a work in progress--not surprising since the current apps are prominently labeled as technical previews. Microsoft says that all of them will be finalized and available--to consumers via SkyDrive (Microsoft's free online file storage service) and to businesses via SharePoint 2010 server software--when Office 2010 ships in the first half of 2010.
However, judging from the preview versions I tried through a SharePoint site that Microsoft set up for reviewers (and through the technical beta program on SkyDrive), they're no match for the competition. For example, Excel can't create charts, Word has no support for revision mode, and the slide-creation tools in PowerPoint pale next to the wealth of choices in Zoho Show.
SharePoint's interface for document sharing isn't particularly intuitive: You can't create new documents on the Web (although Microsoft says eventually you'll be able to)--instead you must upload them from desktop apps. And regardless of location (SharePoint or Windows Live), Office Web Apps will work only with documents in Microsoft's XML file formats (.docx, .xlsx, and so on). But in my tests, at least, Office Web Apps generally delivered on fidelity, meaning that what you see online is what you get on the desktop and vice versa, which isn't always the case with other Web apps that support the Office formats.
Though all Windows Live users will have access to Office Web Apps, the offerings' lack of features suggests that Microsoft isn't trying to create a Web-based productivity ecosystem so much as it is attempting to give customers a Microsoft option for basic editing when they don't have access to the desktop software.
Other news relates to how Office 2010 will be delivered on new PCs. Instead of the free limited-period trial commonly available now, Microsoft will make a free, ad-supported Office Starter Edition available to PC manufacturers (this will replace Microsoft's low-end Works suite, too).
But it's a stripped-down freebie, consisting of basic versions of Word and Excel that each lack three of the seven tabbed main-menu items in the full versions. In Starter, Word won't have the Reference, Review, and View tabs; Excel will omit Reference, Review, and Data. Both apps will have a taskbar on the right side containing a small ad toward the bottom for the full versions of Office.
More annoyingly, because the Starter apps don't support revision mode, you won't be able to accept, reject, or even delete revisions in documents created in the full versions of Office, which renders Starter Edition useless for any sort of collaboration.
Microsoft is offering the 64-bit version of Office alongside the 32-bit version; you can make your choice during installation. The additional addressable memory that 64-bit PCs and apps support will primarily benefit people who work with huge spreadsheets.
Generally we liked the innovations of Office 2007 (although many other people did not). In this new version, Microsoft has made a lot of usability and design improvements that individually may not bowl anyone over, but as a package--especially as the Web apps mature--are solid and welcome. No pricing has been revealed for the editions announced earlier this year: Office Home and Student (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote), Office Home and Business (which adds Outlook), Office Professional (which adds Access and Publisher on top of the rest), and the two volume-licensing editions, Office Standard (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, and Publisher) and Office Professional Plus (which builds on Standard by adding Business Contact Manager CRM features to Outlook, as well as Access, InfoPath, Communicator, SharePoint Workspace, and other enterprise-specific extras).
If Microsoft doesn't make the cost of upgrading from 2007 prohibitive, I'd be inclined to move up to this new Office.
Next: A look at the individual applications