This week, Microsoft announced that Office Web Apps are scheduled to be available on June 15, along with retail and online store copies of Office 2010. Previously, Office Web Apps were only available as a beta for testing. When released, Office Web Apps will be free to consumers, but organizations wanting to use them may need to consider beefing up their infrastructure to support SharePoint 2010.
Office Web Apps are Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote applications designed to run in a Web browser. Browsers supporting Office Web Apps include Internet Explorer 7 and 8, Firefox 3.5 (Windows, Mac and Linux) and Safari 4 (Mac), according to a Microsoft support page. It's not clear if Microsoft plans to expand this support to other browsers, such as Opera or Google Chrome.
Essentially, Office Web App users will fall into two camps: business users and consumers. Consumers will be able to access Office Web Apps for free through Microsoft's Windows Live software-as-a-service portal, although it's expected that Microsoft will push ads to them. A premises-installed copy of Office is not required to use Office Web Apps via Windows Live.
Business users, on the other hand, will have to pay extra, in one form or another, to use Office Web Apps. The upside for business users is that IT organizations will be able to manage the service if they host it using SharePoint 2010 or SharePoint Foundation 2010 (formerly known as Windows SharePoint Services), or they can subscribe to Microsoft Online Services.
Another benefit for businesses hosting Office Web Apps through SharePoint 2010 is that it enables mobile device access, according to a Microsoft support document. Microsoft announced this week that Office Mobile 2010 -- which includes mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint Workspace -- has been released. The apps are all free for Windows Mobile 6.5-based phones. A Microsoft blog describes the ability to edit the text of PowerPoint presentations using Office Mobile 2010 on a mobile device.
All basic features will be available in the four Office Web Apps when they become available on June 15, according to a Microsoft spokesperson via e-mail on Friday. Those basic features include document sharing and collaboration, as well as editing and saving files. Windows Live SkyDrive provides up to 25 GB of free storage space for consumers using the service.
Users of Office Web Apps can work offline too. Documents created using Office Web Apps will be accessible offline through premises-installed Office clients, starting from Office 2003 on up to the current Office 2010 release. New PC buyers using the Office Starter edition (which contains basic versions of Word and Excel) can also access Office Web App-created documents offline. Office Web Apps save files in the newer Office Open XML-based formats introduced in Office 2007, such as .DOCX, .XLSX and .PPTX.
Business users could tap into Office Web Apps for free using Windows Live, but the consumer service doesn't have the controls typically required by organizations, according to Microsoft. For that, SharePoint or a subscription to Microsoft Online Services is needed.
"While Windows Live is great for consumers, it lacks some of the SharePoint capabilities such as manageability, compliance, controls, etc. that are important to enterprise customers," the Microsoft spokesperson explained. "Microsoft Online Services adds a range of additional business services, plus the ability to manage these services with things such as Active Directory integration, auditing, compliance, etc."
Microsoft hasn't clarified whether Office Web Apps will be offered through its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) collection of hosted services or some other service. BPOS does provide that "range of additional services" by hosting applications based on Microsoft Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office LiveMeeting and Office Communications Online.
Still, adding hosted Office to BPOS is part of Microsoft's plan, according to Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Microsoft's roadmap does indicate that the full functionality of Office will become available in BPOS in 2010, but I don't expect deep discounting or pricing comparative to Google Apps," McLeish stated in an e-mail.
McLeish noted that the free consumer version of Office Web Apps will have some limitations. "You can't create a table of contents, use mail merge, and many other advanced features," she wrote. "And there would still be compatibility issues of using Office 2003 in conjunction with a newer version, such as the loss of Smart Art or other newer features only available in Office 2007 or Office 2010."
However, one of the more anticipated features of Office Web Apps -- namely, coauthoring, which allows multiple authors to edit a document at the same time -- will be available to both business users and consumers. However, only two of the Office Web Apps currently support it.
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