Microsoft’s new web apps have been available for a few weeks now. These are web-based versions of Microsoft’s popular Office software (Word, Excel, PowerPoint). I recently decided to give the Word web app a try. This post is basically a thought-dump of what I found regarding:

  • Registration
  • Interface
  • File rendering
  • Results of a test using a complex Word flie
  • Overall impressions (the good and not-so-good)

Registration impressions

If you have an ID for Hotmail, Messenger, or SkyDrive, you can use the same ID to log into Microsoft’s web apps. If you don’t have one of those (or if you don’t want to use it for that purpose), you’ll need to create a new ID using an email address.

The sign up process was fairly straightforward. First of all, it’s totally free. Microsoft doesn’t ask for a lot of information, but they do want your birth year – an odd piece of information sitting in an otherwise sparse sign-up page.

Interface first impressions

The interface is very clean and not-crowded, especially considering that this is Microsoft. The landing page shows your recent documents with revision dates, and it also gives you some icons for creating new documents.

If you point your mouse cursor at the document owner’s name, the link turns into an “edit” link allowing you to open the document for online editing.

The web app version of Word is clearly patterned after the desktop version. The familiar ribbon interface sits atop the page, though there are far fewer commands on it.

File rendering

While working on my Mac, I usually work with Word files in Pages 09, NeoOffice (a Mac-friendlier version of or Google Docs. Which one I choose depends on 1) whether I’m collaborating with others and 2) how complex the file is.

Google Docs is tops for collaboration. It makes sharing “working” versions of files extremely easy. And since Google Docs is a web app, it works right in your browser. It’s accessible anywhere you have an internet connection.

Where Google Docs often falls short is handling complicated Word (doc or docx) files. I occasionally have to work with Word files that have fields or other complicated coding specific to Microsoft’s proprietary file format.

NeoOffice actually does a pretty good job of reading all but the most complicated Word files. It will also “save as” doc too.

I was really hoping that Microsoft’s new web apps would step in and be the new champion of displaying and saving complicated doc and docx files. So I decided to give it a test drive with such a file.

Testing a “complex” Word file

I recently received a Word file that had some yes/no checkboxes in it. I needed to fill these out and and return the file to the sender (legibly).

First, I tried Google Docs. No luck. The layout was fine, but the checkboxes did not display.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="153" caption="Google Docs"][/caption]

Next up, was Pages. Now normally Pages handles Word files pretty well, but this time, it was a bit of a disaster. The document had an embedded table that Pages didn’t take kindly to, and the whole page turned into a big mess. The yes/no checkboxes didn’t show either.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="104" caption="Pages 09"][/caption]

At this point, I figured it was worth giving Microsoft’s web apps a shot at it. I figured who better than Microsoft to display, well, Microsoft-formatted files. The layout of the document overall was good. Unfortunately I still didn’t get my checkboxes. Instead, I got field codes.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="157" caption="Word web app"][/caption]

Finally, I turned to NeoOffice. It won this round hands down. Checkboxes at last!

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="249" caption="NeoOffice"][/caption]

Overall first impressions of Microsoft web apps and other random bits

Good things

  • The interface is simple and nice. In many ways, this is a welcome change forced by Microsoft’s inexperience in developing web apps. The desktop version of Office gets more crowded with every release.
  • Getting files in is pretty easy once you figure out that you need to be on the SkyDrive page. SkyDrive is basically where all of your files live online.
  • It works in Firefox and Safari. This is worth stating because Microsoft has traditionally shunned all browsers other than its own Internet Explorer when developing web-based interfaces.
  • Registration is simple, fast, and free. It could do without the birth year field, however.

Less than good things

  • Microsoft’s web apps feel a bit slow compared to Google Docs. Opening documents took longer than expected, and sometimes there were delays when navigating within the site. It’s worth noting that Microsoft recommends downloading and installing Silverlight to run the web apps more smoothly. I did not do this.
  • Downloading needs some work. When I downloaded a file that had spaces in the name, it put quotes around the file name and even saved the file on my local hard drive with the quotes (e.g. “My file.doc”). This caused the file to be unrecognized on my Mac by any programs until I manually deleted the quotation marks from the file name. Additionally, you are only given the option to download the file in the Microsoft format. Google Docs, on the other hand, lets you download as Word (doc), RTF, PDF, text, HTML, and ODF.
  • As noted above, the web app version of Word doesn’t seem to handle complicated doc and docx files any better than Google Docs (based on my limited testing).

In conclusion, I was hoping Microsoft’s web apps would give me a new tool for editing and sharing complicated Word files without having to boot up Windows and run Microsoft Office. It’s not ready for that yet, but it seems like a step in the right direction.

Right now, Microsoft web apps seem like a first-draft copy of Google Docs and don’t offer any significant benefits to me personally. I may change my mind as I continue to explore Microsoft’s web apps, and I will post what I find. Soon, I plan to look into the web version of Excel.

It will be interesting to see if Microsoft really invests in web apps or if they’ll eventually be put out to pasture in the sky. In many ways, web apps are a catch-22 for Microsoft.

If Microsoft doesn't develop them, they risk letting Google dominate the web app space. If Microsoft ends up doing a great job with web apps, they’ll surely cannibalize sales on the desktop (paid) versions of Office. Fully featured Microsoft Office web apps also mean that people no longer need Windows to use Microsoft Office -- any computer with an internet connection will do.

Have you tried Microsoft web apps yet? What do you think of them?