Office Suites in the Cloud: Microsoft Office Web Apps Versus Google Docs and Zoho

Microsoft's fledgling Web-based productivity apps have one key advantage over SaaS rivals: amazing fidelity to the desktop-bound Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document formats

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The PowerPoint files I tried yielded similarly impressive results. Images retained most of their quality, and text remained where it should. And unlike Google Docs or Zoho, the PowerPoint Web App managed to preserve animated transitions between slides.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that Microsoft relies on ActiveX controls or other IE-only trickery to achieve all this, but you'd be wrong. Internet Explorer users are offered an improved file upload UI, but other than that, everything renders the same in all of Microsoft's supported browsers, which includes not just IE 7+ but Firefox 3.5+ and Safari 4+, as well. Just for fun I tried Google Chrome, too, and even though that browser isn't formally supported, everything looked fine. That's it; no add-ons or plug-ins are required -- but if you do install Silverlight, fonts look crisper and document load times improve somewhat.

But there must be a catch, right? Sure, and it's a doozy: Microsoft's applications don't really work. During the Technical Preview, documents imported into the online versions of Word and PowerPoint are read-only. Mind you, that's nothing to sneeze at; if you're looking for a surefire way to read and print Word 2007 documents from Linux, for example, these apps are already a godsend. But whether Microsoft can re-create the editing experience of its desktop apps remains to be seen.

The Excel Web app does allow editing, and the results are mixed. Like its siblings, it reproduced Excel files with far greater fidelity than either Google Docs or Zoho. This was especially true for embedded graphs, which rendered exactly as they do in Excel 2007, down to the fonts and coloring. Changing figures on the worksheet caused the graphs to be redrawn in real time, which was impressive to watch.

Microsoft's Word Web App (above) reproduces .doc and .docx files with absolute fidelity, down to the smallest detail. Excel Web App (below) also was impressive, but the results were more mixed. (Note: Click the images to enlarge them.)

Equally impressive were the app's collaboration capabilities. Multiple authors can open the same document simultaneously, and when one author makes changes, all the other browser windows are updated with the new figures in real time. (It's worth noting, however, that Microsoft says a similar capability will not be available in the Word Web app at launch time; apparently there are limits to Microsoft's AJAX approach.)

Notably absent was any kind of revision history like what Google Docs and Zoho offer. It was fairly trivial to corrupt an entire worksheet with a few clicks of the mouse, and given that the document saves itself automatically at regular intervals, the Revert to Saved button wasn't much comfort. Hopefully this situation will improve as the suite matures.

More troubling were the features the suite didn't support. While the other suites generally discarded elements of spreadsheets they couldn't parse, Excel Web App warned me that files containing "VBA, shapes, or other objects" might not import properly. Worse, when such files did load, the presence of such objects meant they couldn't be edited. It seems the complex Office file formats can be a bit much for online applications to handle -- even for Microsoft itself.

The final version of the Office Web Apps will also include a Web-based version of OneNote, but that application isn't part of the Technical Preview and wasn't available to demo.

Microsoft plans to offer several versions of its Web-based Office at launch. The consumer version will be ad-supported and offer similar Web-publishing features as its competitors (including the ability to embed Word documents in Web pages, formatting and all). Microsoft will also offer a hosted subscription version for businesses, with improved document management and workflow features. Customers who prefer to run the suite on their own servers will be able to do so if they buy a volume license to Office 2010.

That last option underlines Microsoft's view of Office Web Apps as a companion to the traditional desktop suite, not a substitute. Promised integration between Office Web Apps and Office 2010 will allow Office 2010 users to save documents to the Web and open them from the Web directly.

I didn't manage to get Office Web Apps working with the Technical Preview of Office 2010, but I did get it working with Office 2007 on Vista. I needed to be using Internet Explorer to make it work. I could click "Open in Word" in Word Web App and the document would download and open in Office 2007. From there I could make changes, and when I hit Ctrl-S the changes would be saved back to the document stored online. If I then reloaded the document in the Word Web App, I would see all the changes.

It's nothing more impressive than what you can do right now when you open a Word document from a networked share, but it shows how Microsoft is thinking about Office Web Apps and the desktop apps as a unified whole.

Why the Web?When it came down to it, none of the three Web-based productivity suites I tried proved an adequate substitute for traditional desktop software. To be fair, all three are works in progress. But as someone who spends most of his day in Microsoft Office, I needed mere minutes to find some area where each of the online alternatives failed to live up to what I can already do on my desktop today.

So what do these three efforts, ambitious though they are, really hope to achieve? The answer may lie in the disparate business models of the three competitors and the separate niche that each hopes to carve for itself.

Google believes the Web is the future and it's inevitable that document creation, publishing, and collaboration will move online. If you agree with that vision, then an online productivity software offering from a company as prominent as Google will naturally be attractive to you. Just realize that Google's vision is also self-serving: Its core business is search, so it prefers your documents to be online, regardless of whether that's really an advantage.

Zoho's is more of a pure SaaS play, in which the whole may be more important than the quality of its parts. In other words, although Zoho's broad suite of Web-based apps may not give you everything you can get with desktop software, it might be enough. More important, its pricing structure and the fact that SaaS eliminates the need for in-house IT staff may be appealing enough to small businesses on tight budgets that they'll be willing to forgo some of the capabilities of more traditional applications.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is undoubtedly moving to the Web as a defensive measure, but its goal is not to replace the Office we have now. Rather, it plans to augment its current offering with an online option. In that sense, the Office Web Apps will probably fill much the same niche as Outlook Web Access: They'll be invaluable for mobile workers, but where possible, most will stick with the desktop versions. In addition, by bringing support for the Microsoft Office file formats to the Web, Microsoft further cements its status as the de facto standard for office documents.

I suspect Microsoft's model will resonate best with most customers. Don't be surprised if you find yourself using Web-based productivity software in the near future; the online publishing and collaboration features are too valuable to ignore. At the same time, don't wipe your current office suite from your hard drive just yet. Although the current offerings are impressive, browser-based apps have a long way to go before they become the standard for business users.

Related Microsoft Office stories

  • First glimpse: Microsoft Office Web Apps
  • Office 2010 looks solid and smooth
  • Microsoft Office 2010 highlights
  • First look: Microsoft Office 2010
  • Why is Microsoft Office so hard to kill?
  • The better Office alternative: SoftMaker Office bests
  • Can you really live without Microsoft Office?
  • Test Center review: Office killers pack some heat

This story, "Office suites in the cloud: Microsoft Office Web Apps versus Google Docs and Zoho," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in applications, cloud computing, and Microsoft Office at

This story, "Office Suites in the Cloud: Microsoft Office Web Apps Versus Google Docs and Zoho" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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