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Old 02-07-2011, 10:24 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The road to Office 365: Office Web Apps go global ... sorta

Last week saw a flurry of media headlines, happy talk, and regurgitated factoids about Office Web Apps. With Microsoft paving the way for its biggest Office bet yet, the patented hype machine's gears have already started groaning.

Office Web Apps, as we were told on the official Office Web Apps blog, are marching stoutly out to the rest of civilization:

"Starting today, people in over 150 more countries can use the Web Apps to view, edit, and share Office documents from anywhere with a browser and an internet connection. This includes viewing, editing, and sharing Office document attachments in Hotmail. The 150 new locations include India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, and Thailand. Next month is the global finale - when the Web Apps will reach the entire world, with a roll-out to all remaining markets in Central and South America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela."

If that non sequitur leaves you wondering about parts of the world outside Central and South America, you aren't alone.

Similarly worded articles popped up like mushrooms in trade press night soil. They all seemed to overlook a simple fact: the Office Web Apps collection has been available to anybody, anywhere in the world, since they first shipped last June. The simple trick was (and is) to go to the Windows Live website. Of course, anybody with a VPN connection to North America or Europe could've participated long ago, too.

Microsoft appears to be localizing some of the language versions, but it isn't clear from the blog post -- or from extensive experimentation -- exactly which localized languages are available or how they're invoked. But never mind. It looks good in print. Any press is good press, eh?

Making the four Office Web apps usable worldwide is a key precursor to the launch of Office 365: The online Web Apps make the promised Office 365 collaboration possible. What we're seeing now is the vanguard of a massive publicity assault that is due to reach a crescendo in the next six months or so.

The original Office Web Apps -- stripped-down online applications that bear some semblance to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- drew few accolades. (See, for example, Neil McAllister's "Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal.") They've been improved a bit since the initial launch. For example, you can now print a Word document while you're editing it. The Excel Web App now lets you auto-fill a range. The new PowerPoint supports clip art. Be still my beating heart. The nature of these "upgrades" speaks volumes about the limitations of the free online applications.

I still can't type anything in the online OneNote without having the application freeze. Maybe I just type too fast.

Office Web apps work on Office documents, and those documents have to be online before you can use them. That's why you'll see OWA tied inextricably into SkyDrive, Hotmail, Facebook (through, or SharePoint. The files have to live somewhere. As Office 365 goes into the final stretch, we'll see more options for hosting the files -- no doubt, with price tags attached.

Much to its credit, Office Web Apps work on modern versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, although they don't work on iPads. The Apps render documents well, in my experience, but editing gets difficult because of graphic placeholders and very rudimentary Excel graphs. Nobody would accuse the Office Web Apps of being WYSIWYG applications. If you have the underlying Office 2010 application installed (for example, if you're trying to edit a Word document with the online Word app and Word 2010 is installed on your PC), one click will put you in the application's editor, with the document pulled down to your PC. That gives you WYSIWYG editing, but then you lose the online collaboration capabilities.

In short, global or not, Office Web Apps are very stunted substitutes for the apps themselves. Will they, their desk-bound namesakes, and a bit of high tech glue suffice to draw companies to Office 365? Let's see what the hype machine has to say.

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