So it’s official: Microsoft will release (if “lightweight”) Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. The news came out yesterday at Microsoft’s PDC event in Los Angeles; I was in the audience. And I liked what I saw: The Web-based versions of Word, Excel, and OneNote that Microsoft demoed sported interfaces that looked like real Microsoft Office (including the Ribbon toolbar) and features that looked surprisingly heavy duty (such as conditional formatting in Excel). And there’s plenty of possibility in the notion of folks who use the desktop versions of Office apps and those who work only in the browser being able to collaborate across the Net on shared documents and projects.
But for all we know about these Office Web Applications–like the fact that they’ll be rolled out with Office 14, Office 2007′s successor, are scheduled to go into private beta test later this year, and will available in both corporate versions and ad-supported ones for consumers–there’s far more that we don’t know.
Which leaves me, as usual, full of questions…
Just how “lightweight” will they be? Office in its traditional desktop form is one of Microsoft’s twin cash cows; an Office that was Web-based, comparable in features, and free would presumably kill that cow really quickly–or at least Microsoft must fear that it would. Which puts the company in a strange situation with Office Web Applications: It may be afraid to make them as good as they can possibly be. Its archrival in Web-based productivity, Google, doesn’t have that issue with Google Apps, since it has no cash cow to protect.
Of course, if it’s inevitable that office suites move mostly or completely online over time–and I think it is–protecting a desktop-based cash cow might be pointless over the long term. Is Microsoft brave enough to make the Office Web Apps great rather than intentionally hobbling them? We’ll see.
Will Silverlight be a pro or a con? The demos we saw at PDC were of apps that looked surprisingly slick for browser-based services. That may be in part because Microsoft is using its Flash rival Silverlight in the Office Web Applications, rather than relying only on Web standards. (I’m not clear, incidentally, on whether the Web Applications will require Silverlight, or whether it’ll be an option that enables advanced features.)
There’s no question that a Web-based Office that uses Silverlight will be able to deliver a more desktop-like feel than one that uses only AJAX techniques. But Silverlight isn’t pervasive on the Web, so you might not be able to use the Office Web Applications anywhere you can get to a computer with a browser. (Of course, a good Web-based version of Office stands as good a chance as anything of being the killer app that lead folks to install Silverlight.)
What will the difference be between Office Web Applications’ consumer and corporate versions? Will the free consumer versions be dumbed-down? Will the corporate ones require server software of some sort?
What’s the deal with the phone? At PDC, Microsoft talked a lot about the notion of its applications spanning the worlds of the desktop, the Web, and the phone. And it demoed one phone-related bit of Office Web integration: taking a photo with a camera phone that then appears in a OneNote document. But if Microsoft only enables folks with Windows Mobile-based phones to do cool stuff in Office Web, it’ll be far less interesting than if it does so for phones of all sorts. Is Microsoft brave enough to write an Office client of some sort for the iPhone? (And is Apple smart enough to let it do so?)
How will Google respond? Google Apps are neat, and they’re already better collaborative tools than Office in its present form; they’re also pretty rudimentary for the most part. It was always clear that Microsoft had the opportunity to steal Google’s thunder by releasing a Web-based version of Office that had a richer interface and more features than Google’s offering. And the apps that Microsoft showed at PDC looked fancier than Google Apps, at least. Will Google ramp up its efforts more quickly than it would have? Will it intentionally keep things simple on the theory that more features don’t necessarily make for a better online suite? Will it turn out that it’s not all that serious about the Web suite business? I dunno, but it’ll be fascinating to find out.
When will all this happen? ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley thinks that Office 14 may not ship until 2010. Web-based office productivity will have presumably evolved a lot by then; Office Web Applications that look impressive today might be the same ol’ same ol’ by then.
I’m not going to get overly excited by Office Web Applications until we have answers to these and other questions. But I like Office 2007′s interface and love working on the Web–so I’m hoping that Office Web Applications will indeed turn out to be something to get excited over, whenever and wherever they show up.