Microsoft Office Web Apps still cloaked in mystery

Microsoft online apps an adjunct for corporations

Microsoft Monday shed little light on its forthcoming Office Web Applications, which were announced nine months ago, leaving more questions about the depth of features, their integration with Office on the desktop, how they would run inside a corporate network, and how they stack up to online alternatives.

Microsoft had no beta test code to offer attendees at its annual Partner Conference, where it unveiled a technical preview of Office 2010. Office Web Applications will be delivered as part of the software in the second half of 2010. Microsoft isn't planning a private beta test of Office Web Applications until August.

In fact, Monday's message was strikingly similar to what the company said in October when it announced Web-based versions of its popular Office suite.

The Office Web Apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- are targeted at online alternatives including Google Docs/Apps and Yahoo's Zoho.

Microsoft did announce the applications will be made available in three ways: free through Windows Live, free to Volume Licensing customers with Software Assurance to run as a service inside their firewalls, and for a fee via Microsoft Online Services in the same hosted manner that Exchange and SharePoint are delivered.

Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler says he thinks Microsoft is building an augmentation strategy that will not cannibalize its desktop Office franchise. Microsoft said in October that Office Web Applications would not allow offline use.

"You have to have a desktop client for reasons of continuity," Schadler says. "For people who want to work offline, for reasons of confidence and being able to back up and have access to files. But there are times when a Web client makes sense and a lot of those are collaborative situations, when you are working on a document you want a lot of people to see simultaneously, or to know you are always looking at the latest version. The other thing is access to documents when you are not on your work PC."

Microsoft is positioning Office Web Applications as completing the puzzle of documents available anywhere -- PC, browser or mobile device.

Microsoft was coy on most everything else to do with Office Web Applications.

A Microsoft spokesman says the company is not sharing any level of detail about the features of the applications beyond the fact they will have "essential editing and formatting" functions. Microsoft described the applications as "lightweight" versions of desktop Office applications.

Microsoft did say that SharePoint will be the back-end repository for companies that choose to run the Office Web Applications inside their firewalls. Those applications, the spokesman says, would be hosted in much the same way Outlook Web Access is run from back-end servers.

SharePoint is also rumored to be a required hub that will support printing and other features from the online Office applications and most likely would be the staging platform for the applications themselves because it can act as a Web server.A video that Microsoft made available showed the applications at work and mentioned that Office Web Applications would run on Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari.

Microsoft is lining up to battle online competitors such as Google Docs, which are available for free; Google Apps Premier Edition, a $50 per use suite of applications that include Google Docs; and Yahoo's Zoho suite.

Office Web Applications don't look to be as sophisticated or feature rich as those offerings, but then Google and Yahoo do not stack up to the desktop version of Office.

Microsoft says Office Web Applications will be free to some 400 million Windows Live consumers, 90 million corporate Office customers with Software Assurance consumers and 510 million existing Office users via online hosting.

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John Fontana

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