PDC 2008: First glimpses at Office apps on the Web

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In what will undoubtedly be perceived as Microsoft's response to Google in the Web applications field, the company this morning gave a first peek into Web-based versions of its Office components, which it's presenting as supplemental to the main Office package.

Though the Web-hosted versions of Microsoft Word and Excel bear respectable similarity to their desktop-hosted counterparts, and even though they will probably be fully capable of running on their own, Microsoft representatives this morning at PDC 2008 introduced these components as supplements to Office -- moreover, as features customers get access to by purchasing and using Office 14.

"Office Web Applications are licensed versions of our desktop PC applications that [enable you to] collaborate on Office documents right from within the browser," stated Takeshi Numoto during a keynote demonstration to a packed audience. "We'll be delivering those for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

"Office is about helping you work the way you want to," Numoto began his demo this morning. "With over half a billion customers using our products worldwide, we have learned a tremendous amount, in terms of the huge diversity in the way people work. Customers also tell us that, no matter what their [style of work], they want to be able to share information, connect with others, and collaborate without boundaries. And of course, people want to do this with a seamless expanse across the PC, and phone, and Web."

The principal purpose of using the Web versions of Excel, Word, OneNote, and PowerPoint will not just be a way to use your documents when you're not in the office -- conceivably, Application Virtualization would be preferable for that job anyway. Moreover, Microsoft's positioning the Web components in Office 14 as collaboration tools that are more approachable for the everyday user. Imagine Dynamic Data Exchange on a global level, for instance, as documents with online components can conceivably find themselves updated instantaneously via the Web.

For Takeshi's first trick, he demonstrated picking up mapping data from the Web and dropping in into a browser-based OneNote document. That document then showed up on a shared system connected to that document through Windows Live Spaces.

Later, he showed a very simple example of a document that uses multiple fonts, being edited first in the native Word 14 application and then in its Web-based counterpart. What was important about this demo was that it showed the use of fonts that are relatively unique, and unlikely to be used normally on the Web. The Web version's ability to use a document's native fonts is due in large part, Numoto said, on Silverlight.

This demo was also our first peek, by the way, at the native Word 14 application. Surprisingly, there wasn't a lot that jumped out at us. Perhaps we've become accustomed to fundamental change, although as long ago as 2006, we were warned that Office 14 would continue the usage model created for Office 2007 without a tremendous amount of change.

We did notice this: The "Office Button," which was introduced in Office 2007, is the location for the main menu of the application -- where you load and save documents, where you set options, where you print, and where you exit. That Office Button has been mimicked prominently in the Web versions of Office 14 applications we saw today. However, that same button has been slimmed down, perhaps downplayed, in the early build of Word 14.

What was perhaps most impressive of all this morning was the online version of Excel, which follows up on document display features such as conditional highlighting and inline graphics -- features that were only just introduced in Excel 2007 for the desktop.

"For quite some time now, many of you have wondered how, or even whether, we might truly bring our Office suite to the Web," admitted Microsoft's Ray Ozzie after the close of the demo. "Our aspirations have been about delivering more than just docs and spreadsheets in a browser over the Web. What Takeshi just showed you was, the combinations of the Web, the phone, and the PC can be clearly more valuable for our customers than any one of those platforms just taken by itself. As a combined, integrated solution, we can center the creation and editing tasks where they're most natural and effective on the PC. We can pivot the sharing and collaboration around the Internet and the Web. We can channel your most spontaneous actions within mere arm's reach on the phone. This is a vision of seamless, connected productivity, a coherent vision of a multi-screen office, an office without platform boundaries, an office without walls."

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