Microsoft's new Office Web Apps free but inadequate, limited

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By Rob Pegoraro
Friday, June 11, 2010; 12:32 PM

Back when cellphones flipped open, the impending arrival of a new version of Microsoft Office would be stop-the-presses material. Now, even the debut of a free version of Microsoft's flagship productivity suite can seem less exciting than temporary tweaks to Google's home page.

Microsoft helped park itself in this position by shipping a series of underwhelming releases: Office 2003 had few useful changes outside its Outlook e-mail program, while Office 2007's overdue interface rewrite often went no deeper than the first layer of dialogue boxes in its constituent applications.

Meanwhile, competitors delivered such useful alternatives as the ugly but free and open-source OpenOffice (http://openoffice.org), Apple's innovative, Mac-only iWork and Google's free, Web-based Google Docs (http://docs.google.com).

That last rival alone has done so well that Microsoft's new Office Web Apps deserve a description that no release of Office has merited in more than 15 years: the challenger to a comfortable incumbent.

It's inexplicable, then, that Office Web Apps -- to be followed next week by Microsoft's full Office 2010 suite -- look like the apathetic work of an overprivileged student. The oddly limited versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote leave Web Apps a stub of Office as we know it, with document-sharing features that fall embarrassingly short of Google's.

But at least none of this inadequacy costs anything.

To try Office Web Apps, simply go to http://office.live.com and sign in with a Windows Live account in, more or less, the browser of your choice. Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome all ran Microsoft's applications as well as the Redmond, Wash., company's own Internet Explorer. The only major advantage to using Office Web Apps in Windows instead of Mac OS X or Linux was the ability to use fonts installed on the computer.

(Mobile use was another story. Despite Microsoft's advertised phone support, I couldn't read OneNote outlines on an iPad's copy of Safari or an HTC Evo 4G's Android browser. And the latter program crashed when I tried to read Word and PowerPoint documents. Only Excel spreadsheets allowed editing on those two gadgets.)

Microsoft's Web versions of Office programs look strikingly like their deskbound originals, just with far fewer buttons at the top of each window. The Word Web Apps "ribbon" toolbar features four tabs, vs. eight in Word 2010. That makes it harder to get lost but easier to find yourself wanting an absent feature.

Some of those omissions make sense. PowerPoint, for example, doesn't necessarily need the real thing's array of between-slides transition effects. But some defy logic. Word lets you write text from right to left but lacks a word count and a footnoting tool. And Excel provides nearly zero help with composing formulas, one of the most basic functions of a spreadsheet.

Those applications also show a puzzling inconsistency in how they work. Although Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint save your work automatically, as Web applications should, Word does not. And although Excel and OneNote let two people work on the same document at the same time (changes showed up on a second computer about a minute after being typed on the first), Word and PowerPoint will kick you out of a document when you share it with somebody else.

Office 2010 (look for a full review here next week) can save files to the Microsoft SkyDrive site that hosts Office Web Apps, with its absurdly generous 25 gigabytes of free storage. But Thursday, that feature served only error messages.

Unlike Google Docs, Office Web Apps offer no data-export choices. Although they accept older Office files (in a backward interface that asks you to designate an online storage folder before selecting the file from your desktop), they then convert them to new file formats that Microsoft debuted with Office 2007 -- and won't save them in any other form afterward.

A dismaying variety of performance and reliability issues, such as OneNote's odd sluggishness at switching between branches in an outline and the entire suite's habit of coughing up server-error messages at random times, round out problems with Office Web Apps. Even the ads that help underwrite its costs, especially the ugly banners on the Office Web Apps home page that you've seen in too many other places, need improvement.

In its current underdeveloped state, Office Web Apps would have been more accurately named Works Web Apps, after the cut-down home productivity suite that Microsoft axed last year when it realized nobody liked it much.

This effort, however, doesn't have to share Works' fate. Microsoft can keep posting improvements and upgrades instead of being bound by the usual three-year Office upgrade cycle. But the same goes for Office Web's online competitors, which have a lot more practice at this business than Microsoft.

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