Thoughts on Office moving to your browser

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We’ve seen the demos, read the press release then the inevitable rumors and supposition – now Office Watch has to opine on Microsoft’s announcement of a light-weight version of Office available via a web browser.

We’ve seen the demos, read the press release then the inevitable rumors and supposition – now Office Watch has to opine on Microsoft’s announcement of a light-weight version of Office available via a web browser.

Generally we’re reluctant to do this, we prefer to talk about substantial Office features that our readers can either use today or will in the near future. This new incarnation of Office won’t be available to the public fully until a twelvemonth or more from now. But we understand our readers are interested in this development so here’s some thoughts based on what we know so far …

It won’t be ‘full featured’ Office moved to your browser – that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. What we’ll see in the first version is a basic set of Office features across Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote with a focus on the strengths that an online browser and document storage can give.

One of those strengths is online collaboration with the ability for several people to edit the same document or worksheet at the same time. With most deployments of Office and Microsoft server technologies that’s either impossible or incredibly difficult to manage. An online browser version makes that quite easy and considerably cheaper than the current MS Office / Sharepoint / Exchange Server requirements.

With such direct and immediate collaboration comes the vital need for version control – and the coming ‘Office web applications’ (there’s no official name yet) will have that too.

‘Office on the Web’ offering is touted as working on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari across multiple operating systems, however you can expect that the best experience will be reserved for people running an ‘all Microsoft’ system of Windows and Internet Explorer. The use of Microsoft’s proprietary Silverlight technology pretty much ensures that will be the case (Silverlight is available for Mac and Linux but in less compelling forms than the Windows version).

A ‘light-weight’ version of Microsoft Office might also appease those people who feel the current incarnations of Office are over-burdened with features that they don’t need.


Offline access

There’s no sign that Office in the browser will work when disconnected from the Internet. That’s something Google Docs can do with their clever Gears technology.

Microsoft might eventually be forced to offer an offline version of their browser based Office but that move would undercut sales of MS Office software – something the company is reluctant to do.


Linking local and online storage

The glaring omission from Google Docs and Adobe’s online office suite is a direct sync between documents on your computer and those stored online. At present you have to transfer a document between the two manually (upload / download) which opens the possibility of two versions of an important file being created. In the demos of Office online to date the same problem appears.

Ideally users can open a document in either Office software or Office online knowing that they are dealing with the same file. In other words, click on a link with no concern about where the document is actually stored and confident that the latest version of the file will be opened.

Microsoft has the technology to do that and give them a major benefit compared with their rivals – but it seems strangely reluctant to embrace it.

Live Mesh could work nicely as the link between Office software and the online service. Sadly Microsoft’s Live Mesh development seems to be happening in an alternate reality, separate from the world of Office development. When we ask Microsoft about Live Mesh and the relation to Office we get platitudes about the company’s ‘vision’ or blank looks from staff who are barely aware that Live Mesh exists.


Do we want an Office 2007 look alike?

It’s no surprise that the MS Office on the Web looks like Office 2007. To Microsoft’s eye, the familiarity of user interface between Office software and the online version is a big selling point. For the most part that’s true but we fear the in-house faith in the righteousness of the user interface obscures some lessons from Microsoft’s past.

Office on the Web could be an opportunity to provide a ‘classic’ interface on menus and toolbars as an alternative to the new-fangled ribbon. The Office 2007 ribbon has not been the overwhelming public success that Microsoft hoped and is often a dis-incentive for upgrading to the latest Office. While we think the ribbon was a necessary move, it’s far from perfect, and Microsoft has been surprisingly obstinate in easing the transition for the majority of users who are resistant to change. Office in a browser is an opportunity to give customers a user interface choice. While some will stick with the old system we believe that most will see the virtues in the ribbon when it’s offered as a choice, not imposed upon them.

To a lesser extent there’s also an argument that making the Office software and online versions too similar can be a mistake where the wider environment is so different. We’re thinking here of Windows Mobile / Pocket PC which has long pushed the line that the similar interface to desktop Windows is an advantage. This marketing line always ignores the smaller screen and different interface options between a handheld device and a more traditional PC. The increasing popularity of Apple’s iPhone and the like show that people are prepared to learn and prefer an interface that is designed for the device they are working on instead of something ‘shoe-horned’ from elsewhere.

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