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Facebook has become a new front end to Office 2010 and Microsoft's latest shot back at Google's free and hosted Docs suite.

The company has unveiled a beta of something called simply Docs that for the first time will let Facebookers create and share documents authored in Office 2010. Docs is based on Office Web apps, the eagerly anticipated online installment of Office 2010 that'll be available beginning next week and will rely greatly on SharePoint 2010. There's no date on when the Docs beta will go live.

Docs is a project that's been rapidly turned around in just four months by Microsoft's Future Social Experiences Labs (FUSE) under general manager Lili Cheng.

FUSE was created by chief software architect Ray Ozzie in October 2009.

Cheng said in a blog post here that Docs "adapts" Office Web apps: "Docs.com integrated with the Facebook experience bring together the best of 'software' with the best of 'services.'"

Office 2010 documents can be created either inside Facebook or on a PC and then uploaded to the social network, Cheng said. Documents can also be viewed and edited within a web browser or on either a PC or Mac running Office.

The Docs experiment comes as Microsoft prepares to release the hosted and onsite versions of Office Web apps, along with the full Office 2010 due for official launch next month but available to big customers on volume licenses starting next week.

People are waiting to see whether Office Web apps will finally give businesses and consumers what they and Microsoft need to turn them off Google Docs, the free-hosted productivity suite from the search giant that combines documents and spreadsheets. Microsoft's move is a considerable departure: Office is a $14bn annual business, so Microsoft will want to be sure Office Web apps bring in additional income and not cannibalize the core.

Docs was revealed as Microsoft put the world on alert that it plans a fourth installment in its Windows Live online applications and services. Updates are planned for Messenger, Hotmail, and Essentials.

Regarding Essentials, Microsoft has said it will focus on: "Connecting your PC to your social networks, your photo sharing services, your phone, and your other PCs - and help you keep things in sync across all the devices you use."

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