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Microsoft's Office Web Apps - Google killing not included

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Review The most intriguing piece of an otherwise predictable Office 2010 - which volume customers can get as of Tuesday - is Office Web Apps.

These are the first ever, in-browser versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote from Microsoft. They represent a significant break with the past for a suite that's been one of Microsoft's cash cows and resolutely stuck on the desktop, albeit with growing attachments to the server in recent years.

Microsoft's Web Apps will officially arrive with Office 2010 on May 12, and they come in two guises. The consumer version will be available on SkyDrive, part of Windows Live, and on Facebook through the just-announced docs.com, while businesses can install Office Web Apps as an add-on for SharePoint 2010. Even the free SharePoint Foundation is sufficient, though you do need a volume license for Office, and it is this version that I tested.

Office Web Apps are billed as a companion to desktop Office, rather than a replacement. Nevertheless, it is a real online suite. It's cross-platform on Windows, Mac, and Linux - though with some caveats. And it allows documents to be created, edited, viewed, and printed in the browser. Excel and OneNote even allow simultaneous editing by more than one user.

Office Web Word app on Linux

Office Web Apps work in Firefox and on Linux, if Moonlight isn't installed

The Web Apps are written mostly in JavaScript, and they'll run on browsers where Microsoft's media player Silverlight is not installed. But they take advantage of Silverlight for viewing documents when it is available. Printing is via Adobe Reader: the web app generates a PDF which is then opened in Reader for printing. On Windows - and provided that you have Adobe reader configured to open documents - this works smoothly. But on other platforms, it can be confusing, since you choose print but get a PDF download prompt.

Let's start with the positives. The Web Apps look good, and the chunky Office Ribbon is easy to use. The ribbon is annoyingly large on a netbook, but it can be hidden. SharePoint feels substantially more powerful with the Office Web Apps installed. The ability to view and edit documents without having to load Office is great, and I found myself enjoying it even when the full Office 2010 was available. It has obvious advantages for mixed Windows, Mac, and Linux networks.

Sharing

The distinctive feature of Office Web Apps is they use the same file formats as desktop Office, so there is normally no loss of fidelity or conversion hassle when editing online. You do have to use the new Open XML formats - the old binary formats, like .doc and .xls, work fine for viewing but cannot be edited in the browser. The other limitation is that if you include content in the document that the web app cannot handle, such as a Word Art object, then the web app will refuse to edit it in the browser.

PowerPoint works particularly well as a Web App. You can run your slide show from browser or use a feature called broadcast where you operate desktop PowerPoint, and you can publish the slide show on a Microsoft-hosted web app that can be viewed from anywhere on the Internet.

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