Office Web Apps to get Google Docs style real time co-authoring 'very soon'

If you're an avid SkyDrive or Office 365 user who happens to leverage Office Web Apps, Microsoft let loose information on a round of updates that will be hitting the browser based suite quite "soon" according to an official Office 365 blog video.

The posting was part of Microsoft's informal "Garage Series" set of video-blogs aimed at IT professionals who support Office. I happened to stumble upon this week-old entry and was quite surprised at what Microsoft has in store -- namely, hitting Google Docs where Office Web Apps haven't been able to thus far: rich real time co-authoring and collaboration.

For those who haven't used Office Web Apps in their current form (as part of SkyDrive or Office 365), the process for collaborating concurrently with others definitely works, but it's not as seamless as what Google Docs has been offering for years now.

Microsoft unofficially coins the current iteration of Office Web Apps collaboration as 'same time co-authoring' whereas they will soon be getting true "Google Docs" treatment, if you want to call it that.

Google Docs may have the upper hand in live collaboration for the time being, but if the latest Microsoft video blog exposé is any indication, Office Web Apps will be just as slick as Docs in the very near future. No more waiting on each party to "save" their document; updates will be streamed to everyone's open file in real time with little delay. (Screenshot Source: Microsoft)

Working hand-in-hand with another person (or people) in a Word or Excel Web App, for example, is a part draw of the hand and part game in timing. Who sees what updates from the other parties depends on who saves their document when, and who likewise gets a refresh of the revised content. If you have numerous people working in a single document, currently, it's a guessing game as to who may be stepping on another's toes for something already edited. While it gets the job done, you can see where every extra person involved makes this scenario that much more precarious very quickly.

Aside from real time "save"-less collaboration, some other neat additions are coming to Word Web App. For example, footers and headers have been promised as options, along with footnotes. Adding comments to documents is also on the docket for the next release. Likewise, table formatting is also on the horizon so web users can add much-needed flare and visual style to their documents, more akin to what desktop users are accustomed to.

Excel Web App is another big piece of the puzzle which Amanda Lefebvre from the Office Web Apps team showed off. Data validation seems to have made the cut in the next release, alongside the currently sorely lacking ability to freeze your panes inside of individual sheets (note: freeze panes has actually launched as of June 26). Rich charting capabilities will also see improvements, especially surrounding real time updates based on data changes made within a spreadsheet.

Excel Web App is getting the same live-time treatment as the rest of the browser based suite. In fact, Microsoft has just pushed out some of the promised updates as of June 26 such as the ability to freeze panes and hide/unhide sheets in a workbook, to name a few. SkyDrive and Office 365 users should see the new changes immediately. (Screenshot Source: Microsoft)

PowerPoint Web App wasn't left out of the fray, as Amanda teased similar real time improvements related to editing formatting and inserting graphics into slides. Slide layout options also seem to be getting some attention over the current feature set available today.

One of the biggest things that the otherwise interesting video did not show off was real time co-authoring between desktop versions of Office 2013 apps and browser based Web Apps. The ability to do this currently exists, but I am really curious if the upcoming updates to Office Web Apps will extend the promise of real time collaboration (without the need for saves) to both the desktop and web side. Information on this is still scarce, and I wish Microsoft had addressed this in the aforementioned video blog. I'd be shocked if the desktop apps weren't on par with what the web-based options are going to offer.

When are these massive changes hitting Office Web Apps? Microsoft hasn't provided any solid timeframe yet, but we can make a few insinuations so far. Amanda Lefebvre of the Office Web Apps team, who was the primary narrator in the above video, claimed that these updates are hitting in the next "several months". Taking this to heart alongside Mary Jo Foley's claims that these updates will land alongside the other products in the "Blue" refresh cycle around October 2013, and we can probably estimate an August-October timeframe with a grain of salt. Seeing that Microsoft wants to surround the Windows 8.1 final release with as much fanfare as possible, it wouldn't be crazy to believe that an Office Web App refresh could hit right in step.

Be sure to check out the coming Office Web App updates for yourself. Feel free to catch the video on their Office 365 blog post starting at about 5:28 into the reel. If Microsoft's upcoming changes are anything like what they're showing off here, then Google Docs users (like myself) will have one less upper hand to brag about, and may even win over some converts.

Photo credit: kurhan/Shutterstock

Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.

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