Giving Microsoft’s Office Web Apps Another Chance

After Microsoft’s IE6 held the web back for so long, hardly any web developers find time to praise Microsoft. It’s not that Microsoft’s the scary giant these days, so much, but that they’ve made so many mistakes over the years that few want to give them the time of day. Even Microsoft fans are calling out the company over decisions they’ve made in Windows 8. The company has made its share of blunders in recent years, missing out entirely on the smartphone and tablet market growth since 2007, and they’re beginning to lose ground in the PC market as well. Bing has taken tons of cash to develop and market, and it still is a distant second to Google’s namesake search engine.

Yet, there’s some things that Microsoft’s doing right, and many of them are on the web. For developers, Microsoft’s Azure provides an alternate to Amazon’s cloud computing, and for the rest of us, Skydrive offers a decently priced online storage competitor. It’d be forgettable if that’s all it offered, but it has one extra thing that makes it much more interesting: Office Web Apps.

Let’s take a look and see why, perhaps, you should be using Office Web Apps instead of Google Docs, or at least why you should keep them in mind in case you ever need them.

Wait, Office?

Yup, Office. Microsoft’s Office suite is such a staple of computing, it’s present on almost every PC worldwide. It’s still, for the most part, considered a must-have in business and education, and the only reason it’s starting to slip in ubiquitousness is the fact that it’s not on iOS and Android. It might not export to HTML well, and it retains its quirks, but when you need to make a well-formatted document or tabulate data in a spreadsheet, Microsoft Office is what you’re almost expected to turn to.

And now, anyone with a browser can use Office, for free. It’s nothing new; Office Web Apps have been around in some form or another for years now. Google Docs has already moved many of us away from Office itself and into the cloud. But this time, with a Office 2013-style update to the Office Web Apps, Microsoft’s online suite is more of a solid competitor.

First off, you’ll have to use Skydrive to use Office online. With Skydrive, you’ll get 7Gb of storage online in a Dropbox-like service, only one that includes a menu at the top to create Office files. You can sync files from your computer to Skydrive, or you can drag-and-drop them into your browser to upload them. It’s a rather nice way to save and share files online on the cheap, and with a sidekick of free Office, it’s surprising it’s not more well known.

Office + Storage that saves real files

Now, Office Web Apps have their limitations; that’s apparent from the start. Word Web App can’t open .txt files, or even .rtf rich text files. Excel won’t open .csv files, either. But, the Office Web Apps will open all standard Office files, both the older .doc/.xls/.ppt files, as well as their newer .docx/.xlsx/.pptx versions. Amazingly, you’ll also find full support for the OpenDocument formats such as .odt that are used by default in OpenOffice and its offshoot LibreOffice.

If you create new documents in the Office Web Apps, they’ll be created in standard Office formats by default, and you won’t have any format options when saving. But, you can set your Office Web Apps to save to OpenDocument formats by default, if you want. That’s quite a surprising addition.

Use OpenOffice or LibreOffice? Office Web Apps will still work for you.

Taking Your Data With You

Before looking at how the Office apps work, though, take a moment to consider one other advantage of Microsoft’s approach over Google’s. With Office Web Apps, the documents you create online are saved in standard Office formats in Skydrive, which means you can download them and edit them in Office, or in many of other apps that work with Office files (iWork, OpenOffice, QuickOffice, Documents to Go, and more). You can upload files you’ve created in Office on your computer, and they’ll open directly, without converting — and they’ll display just as they would in real Office.

You can also sync Skydrive to your computer, which again saves the real Office files you’ve created to your computer. Microsoft could close down Skydrive and Office Web Apps tomorrow, but you could still open files you’ve created in Office Web Apps without any converting.

SkyDrive Apps

Compare that to Google Drive. You can sync Google Drive to your computer as well, but the documents you’ve created in Google Docs sync as just links that open in Google Docs. If Google Docs went away, those files you synced to your computer wouldn’t be openable in any other app. Google Takeout does give you an option to bulk-export all of your Google Documents in the format you want — even Microsoft Office format — but that’s a far cry from your documents created online being synced to your computer automatically in a format dozens of programs can use.

The Office Web Apps Themselves

Word is, of course, the writing mainstay on computers, for better or for worse. Many of us that write for the web have switched years back to plain text and Markdown, but for college essays, business reports, and all other types of documents, Word is the standard. It doesn’t work with plain text — though neither does Google Docs — but it does work great with Word documents, rendering documents made in Word just like they look in Word on the desktop. If you don’t have a copy of Word, it’s one of the best ways to collaborate with other Word users without having to worry if the file looks the same.

And really, for creating new documents, it works just fine, with the basic features you’d expect. There’s even basic photo editing options, with the frames and shadows you’d be used to from Word, as well as the original Office clip art (if you really wanted to use it). You can also live-edit with others, using the web app or using Word on a Mac or PC. That’s a rather cool extra, one that did seem to work well though perhaps not as fast as in Google Docs.

Word, online

Now, Google Docs does work very well with spreadsheets, giving you most of the functions you’d need. The Excel web app does little to counter that by including mostly the basics out of the box, and even feels like it’s trying harder to copy Google with the included online survey tool and options to embed spreadsheets in your site. But, as a spreadsheet app goes, Excel Web App works very well, and could easily be your only spreadsheet tool for basic use. It also includes a nice selection of charts that give you more ways to present your data.

Most interesting, though, Excel does support PivotTables and other Excel-only features in its web app, even though it doesn’t give you the option to create them online. If you have a spreadsheet with a PivotTable, you can tweak it and even embed it in your website from the Excel Web App, something that Google Docs definitely doesn’t have. That said, the fact that the feature’s there makes it frustrating that you can’t make new PivotTables online, and shows that Microsoft is holding the web apps back to make real Office more attractive.

Excel is perhaps the most powerful Office web app

Continuing on, there’s also the PowerPoint web app, as well a web app version of OneNote, Microsoft’s free-form note taking app. OneNote is one of the more interesting, since it has native apps for the iPhone and Android, though it’s a bit harder to get used to if you’re not already using it. It’s essentially a blank screen where you can click anywhere and start typing, or drawing, and you can add images and more as well. Think of it as a free-form Evernote.

PowerPoint, on the other hand, is the business staple (and bane) that’s quite full-featured on the web. You can create new presentations using a number of the templates you’d find in PowerPoint on your Mac or PC, and can even create new SmartArt diagrams for your presentations. If you’re ok with the included templates and the fade or push transitions, then most presenters would be just fine building their full presentations — yes, and presenting them, complete with the familiar click to exit ending — online. PowerPoint presentations made elsewhere look just like you’d expect in the web app. Of the included web apps, PowerPoint is perhaps the most impressive compared to Google Docs, where presentations seem like a half-baked afterthought.



There’s one other interesting thing about Office Web Apps: you can run them on your own server, if you want to. Now, you’ll have to be using Windows Server 2008 or newer, and they’ll require a license from Sharepoint or Exchange server to enable all of their features, both of which are pricey. But, the thing is, you can run them on your own servers, something you could never do with Google Docs, at least not today.

Office web apps also give you a personal upgrade path; if you want more power, you can use Microsoft Office or another Office-compatable suite (even the free OpenOffice). Microsoft Office 2013 offers more web app integration than ever, as does Office 2011 for the Mac with the Office Document Connection. While not free starts, full Office today starts at $9.99/month with Office 365 — and if you’re on Windows, you can even stream the full native apps from the internet, and start running them minutes later without an install. It’s not web apps, but it’s a close blur between the two.

I think Microsoft’s hit an interesting point with the Office Web Apps. They’re full featured enough for quite a bit of use, and are some of the only web apps that save the files they create in formats that can work in other apps — gasp, even apps from other companies. That definitely makes them quite interesting, even for this Mac web app user. No matter what computer you’re on — even a Chromebook — the Office Web Apps give you the best way to view and edit Office files, and let you work with other Office users for free, with no compatibility problems. That’s quite nice.

Fun tip: the Office Web Apps include the font Helvetica, and it renders correctly even on PC browsers. The font itself, however, is not included with Office, so you won’t find it on Office for Windows by default.


Microsoft's Office Web Apps are an amazing example of how much you can recreate real desktop apps online, and put Google Docs to shame in many ways.