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Microsoft's online Office story interrupted

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Comment Sure, Microsoft has kicked off its challenge to Google Docs with a limited - and now closed - test trial edition of Office Web apps

And yes, Microsoft has promised to fix gaps in the tools by mid-2010, when Office Web apps are officially released. With the trial edition, you can't actually create a Word or a PowerPoint document, and the note-taking OneNote application is missing from the line up. Redmond insists it will eventually deliver a "consistent and familiar Office experience" with documents retaining their fidelity while working in the cloud or offline.

But be prepared. Don't expect Office Web apps to be a substitute for Office. Even at this early stage, nearly a year before completion, the line from Microsoft is that Office Web apps will "complement" Office on the desktop or smart phone, rather than match its functionality.

There will be overlap, but gaps are emerging in this story.

Microsoft has promised integration between Office Web apps and the forthcoming Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010. At this early stage, it sounds like you'll be able to create and edit documents in both the online and the desktop and server products.

Also, Office Web apps will serve up existing content in SharePoint - the point being that users can access their old documents and not be confronted by a startlingly new look and feel.

You'll be able to view and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents in SharePoint 2010 by clicking on a file and opening it in a browser or downloading it.

On Office 2010, you'll be able to save documents to different desktop or SharePoint hosted locations, although - for consumers - this will be supplemented with the addition of online storage to the Windows Live service.

"You don't have to worry about uploading files or creating multiple copies of files," Office director Chris Bryant told The Reg.

So, if you can create and edit all documents and store documents in all the same desktop and server repositories as before, what's changed? Besides it being online?

The point seems to be collaboration: You'll have the power to invite people to collaborate on documents and share folders, whether you're using the version of Office Web apps designated for consumers that dovetail with Windows Live or the versions designated for businesses that will tap SharePoint. Also, there's control: Using SharePoint 2010, you'll be able to control identities, storage and grant rights, and permissions with what Bryant called "much more concrete oversight."

But will this experience be a consistent and familiar Office user experience?

Mobile remains the key stumbling block, and it's something Microsoft is working hard to simply get the basics right on - never mind advanced collaboration and editing. Keyboard, screen size, and what you can do using a touch screen will make Office Web apps on mobile different from Office or Office Web apps on the PC or through the browser.

At its recent Worldwide Partner conference, Microsoft demonstrated Office Web apps running on the iPhone. The company has also signed a deal with Nokia that could see Office arrive on Symbian-powered Nokia phones next year.

Bryant said, however, that a lot of work remains on reaching the future goal of making Office Web apps on mobile a "better editing experience."

"The primary effort is to make sure rendering translates down to the mobile form factor quite well," Bryant said.

Microsoft is also evaluating whether it's worth making the applications available for Apple's iPhone through the Safari browser. Today, Office Web apps work in Safari 4 for the Mac, in addition to Internet Explorer 7.0 or higher and Firefox 3.5 or higher.

"We're still playing with whether or not that can be a good user experience," Bryant said of Office Web apps on the iPhone. "It's pretty hard to make the solely touched based experience work on editing."

Some disagree. Quickoffice Mobile Office Suite 1.4.1 lets you edit Word and Excel using .docx and .xlsx on Apple's phone. Microsoft left it to others to put Silverlight on Linux, and it might do the same with Office on the iPhone, blaming the lack of official support on a lack of resources and a need to prioritize.

The "consistent and familiar experience" claim will also be challenged by the selective use of Silverlight in Office Web apps. Microsoft had promised its media player would "light up" features in Office Web apps. At this stage, it seems like Silverlight won't be used in all the Office Web apps when they are officially launched in 2010.

Silverlight is being used to provide crystal-sharp rendering, deep zoom and rotation of graphics and text in Word Web App and PowerPoint Web App only. Silverlight works by taking advantage of hardware acceleration on the client, so you get fast and smooth rendering than if you'd relied on a server.

Not only does Excel Web App not yet have this, but Excel and OneNote Web App when it appears are unlikely to get such features in the first release of Office Web apps planned for next year.

"I don't think there's plans for the Web apps in this release to all us Silverlight to the same extent," Bryant said. "For other applications, it's still to be determined."

Microsoft has released a very early version of Office Web apps, and much work remains. The challenge for Microsoft will not only be in filling these holes but in determining what constitutes a "consistent and familiar Office experience" - for offline, for the cloud, for mobile. ®

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