Microsoft Office Web Apps: Five Needed Fixes

The Web-based version of Office is off to a good start, but Microsoft needs to make a few improvements.

Microsoft officially completed its rollout of Office 2010 on Tuesday by releasing its new productivity suite to retail stores, and ending the Office 2010 free beta testing program. One of the most discussed pieces of the new Office 2010 suite is Microsoft's new free Office Web Apps including browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Overall, the new Web App suite is a pretty good start for Microsoft, and will likely encourage users to stick with Microsoft Office instead of switching to online competitors like Google Docs or Zoho. The new online version of Office is not meant to replace the desktop version, but is something you can use to collaborate online with other users or to use when a full-fledged version of Office isn't available.

Despite the fact that Web Apps aren't supposed to be as full functioning as their desktop counterparts, there are several things Microsoft could do to its Office Web Apps. Here are 5 trouble spots that are top of my mind:

Add Autosave to Word

Autosave is an obvious feature. Google Docs has it, as does Microsoft's Excel Web App. But for some reason, Microsoft has left autosave out of Word--meaning you are vulnerable to losing your work if you don't regularly click the save button. Microsoft figured out a long time ago how important autosaving was, and added a version of it called AutoRecover to the desktop version of Word. So why not add a similar feature to the Word Web App, and save people the hassle of worrying about losing their work?

Warn Me If I Accidentally Close A Tab

Another problem I found was that Word will not always warn you if you try to close a Web App tab with unsaved work in it. So if you use the Word Web App, keep in mind that regularly saving your work is up to you and not the app.

Support More Document Formats

If you want to use Microsoft's Web Apps you can only save and download your documents using the DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX file formats that were first introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. The problem is many users prefer to use the DOC, XLS, and PPT formats used by Microsoft until Office 2003. It would also be convenient if you could download your documents in other popular formats like plain text, rich text, CSV, HTML and PDF; Google Docs and Zoho both offer this functionality.

Clearly, Microsoft wants to encourage people to update their Office software and switch to the newer file formats, but that "encouragement" comes at the cost of convenience for Office Web Apps users.

Browser Parity

One of the more interesting and helpful features in Office Web Apps is the fact that, with just one click of a button, you can open a document directly in its desktop counterpart. If you're editing monthly sales projections in Excel, you just hit the 'Open in Excel,' button and your work opens up on your desktop software but is still saved online. The problem is that this feature only works with Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers on Windows, and doesn't work at all on a Mac computer.

The reason for this is that the Open in Excel, Word, OneNote, or PowerPoint function relies on Microsoft's ActiveX framework, which is not available for Macs or other major browsers in Windows like Chrome, Opera, and Safari. It would be better if Microsoft could figure out a way to extend this functionality to all browsers and Mac computers that have Microsoft Office installed.

Word Is Not OS Friendly

Mac users will find another annoying feature in Word, this one tied to how the keyboard shortcuts function. Mac programs, including Microsoft Office for Mac, typically rely on the 'command' key plus a letter key for shortcuts such as bold (command + b), cut (command + x), copy (command + c), and paste (command + v).

But in the Word Web App, Mac users have to use their 'control' key instead of 'command' for keyboard shortcuts. The reason for this oversight is probably tied to the fact that Microsoft Windows uses the 'control' or 'CTRL' key instead of 'command' for keyboard shortcuts across most programs.

But this failure by Microsoft to adapt its Web Apps to multiple operating systems, as Google does, shows a lack of understanding about how people are accustomed to using their computers. Even more puzzling is that the other Web Apps, including Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, allow Mac users to use the command key for keyboard shortcuts. Only the Word Web App forces the control key onto Mac users.

As I said, overall Microsoft's Office Web Apps are pretty good, but these five tweaks would make the product even better and more competitive with online offerings from Google and Zoho.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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