Microsoft – Office Web Apps review

Microsoft takes the plunge with free cloud-based Office apps
Photo of Microsoft – Office Web Apps

Once upon a time, there was a company called Microsoft. It was founded by a cheery little pixie called Bill, who, back in the way olden days, travelled to the end of a rainbow and found a pot of DOS. Bill’s company was a huge success and employed lots more pixies who wove many, many bytes together to form wondrous creations like Windows and Office.

The latter allowed the big people to type documents and letters while being annoyed by a magic paperclip. Everything was good in Microsoft world. Then the madness began, and the scuttling beasts named OpenOffice, Google Docs and Zoho crawled out from beneath the gnarled roots of Freebie Forest, emerging blinking into the sunlight.

Microsoft had to react to the fact that you can now get quality fully featured Office suites for absolutely no outlay, in an economic climate where personal and business finances are feeling the squeeze. And react it has – to a point. The full version of Office 2010 still costs several hundred pounds, of course, but the company has now implemented a cut-down edition of the suite online.

It’s called Office Web Apps, and it encompasses compact cloud-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Office Web Apps is designed to be a companion product to the proper Office suite, as obviously Microsoft still wants you opening your wallet for the real deal. However, it’s perfectly possible to use it as a completely free standalone product.

Although if you want to access Office Web Apps, you’ll need to log on to the site via a Windows Live ID. Those who haven’t previously used Hotmail, or have steered clear of all things MS on the web, will need to create one. Within Windows Live, you’ll then be presented with a simple Office menu and a drop-down bar which allows you to create a new document in any of the four available applications.

One thing we immediately noticed about the Word app is that it loaded documents more sluggishly than Google Docs, which we’ve worked with quite a lot in the past. On the plus side, we prefer Word’s web interface, as it’s neatly laid out and clearly defined. The interface is essentially a simple version of Office’s ribbon, so accustomed users will be immediately at home with the familiar drop-down font menus and icons for aligning text. The page viewing window is quite narrow, as the ribbon takes up a decent slice of the already limited space within the browser window, although it’s possible to collapse the ribbon to give you more breathing space.

The Word web app’s feature set is pretty basic. There’s a spell checker and the facility to insert tables and clipart (with some stock images thoughtfully provided by Microsoft), but that’s about your lot. Some of the little features we’ve got used to, such as our word processor automatically elongating a short hyphen, aren’t here. Indeed, an autosave feature is also missing, although the application will warn the user if he or she decides to navigate away from a document before saving. Even so, we expected an interval autosave as seen in Google Docs.

We also had a bit of trouble with one document file we worked on which seemed to go corrupt, and wouldn’t let us open it again. That didn’t happen anywhere else, but it was still quite frustrating to lose a chunk of text. Between this and the slightly sluggish working speed, the Word web app isn’t ideal, but it still remains a potentially useful tool. One other positive point is that if you do own the full Office 2010 suite, Microsoft has made it easy to switch between documents using the full program and the web apps, working on them in either.

Excel keeps the same Office style ribbon interface, and as expected, it’s missing many features that the full Microsoft spreadsheet program boasts. You can’t create charts here, for instance, and comments aren’t supported as we found out when we attempted to edit one of our test XLS files. The app would let us open the file for viewing, but not editing, although we got round that simply by saving the file out again (minus the comments that were causing the trouble) whereupon it could be opened for editing.

Web Excel coped fine with our big test spreadsheet file, which was good to see, and managed most of what we chucked at it. One file, however, wouldn’t open because data validation isn’t supported by the browser version of Excel. That aside, we didn’t run into any other hitches.

The PowerPoint app loaded up our PPT files from the full version with no problems: it even automatically converted older format PowerPoint files to the latest version. On the whole, compatibility is a strong suit across this online suite, as you’d expect. The workspace area in PowerPoint suffers from being a little claustrophobic in browser format, and you feel that more when putting together presentation materials, but as with Word you can collapse the ribbon to gain a bit more space. Functionality is pretty basic here, with options such as inserting images and SmartArt unavailable.

One other advantage of working in the cloud is, of course, the fact that your work is backed up should something disastrous happen. And the storage space Microsoft is offering with Windows Live SkyDrive is more than impressive: 25GB worth. That should hold more than a few recipe documents and letters, which can then be easily shared with anyone else, providing they have a Windows Live ID.

Company: Microsoft

Office Web Apps contains fairly basic online versions of Microsoft's heavyweight desktop counterparts, and we encountered a number of niggles here and there. However, the apps are neatly presented and do a pretty good job on the compatibility front, and also in allowing people to share documents online. All this is free, of course, so we're certainly not going to complain much, especially when you get access to 25GB of online storage into the bargain via SkyDrive.