Microsoft Office Web Apps Tied to SharePoint 2010

Microsoft provided a few more details Friday about its forthcoming Office Web Apps, which enable document sharing and collaboration over the Internet.

This week, Microsoft announced that Office Web Apps are scheduled to be available on June 15, along with retail and online store copies of Office 2010. Previously, Office Web Apps were only available as a beta for testing. When released, Office Web Apps will be free to consumers, but organizations wanting to use them may need to consider beefing up their infrastructure to support SharePoint 2010.

Office Web Apps are Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote applications designed to run in a Web browser. Browsers supporting Office Web Apps include Internet Explorer 7 and 8, Firefox 3.5 (Windows, Mac and Linux) and Safari 4 (Mac), according to a Microsoft support page. It's not clear if Microsoft plans to expand this support to other browsers, such as Opera or Google Chrome.

Essentially, Office Web App users will fall into two camps: business users and consumers. Consumers will be able to access Office Web Apps for free through Microsoft's Windows Live software-as-a-service portal, although it's expected that Microsoft will push ads to them. A premises-installed copy of Office is not required to use Office Web Apps via Windows Live.

Business users, on the other hand, will have to pay extra, in one form or another, to use Office Web Apps. The upside for business users is that IT organizations will be able to manage the service if they host it using SharePoint 2010 or SharePoint Foundation 2010 (formerly known as Windows SharePoint Services), or they can subscribe to Microsoft Online Services.

Another benefit for businesses hosting Office Web Apps through SharePoint 2010 is that it enables mobile device access, according to a Microsoft support document. Microsoft announced this week that Office Mobile 2010 -- which includes mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint Workspace -- has been released. The apps are all free for Windows Mobile 6.5-based phones. A Microsoft blog describes the ability to edit the text of PowerPoint presentations using Office Mobile 2010 on a mobile device.

All basic features will be available in the four Office Web Apps when they become available on June 15, according to a Microsoft spokesperson via e-mail on Friday. Those basic features include document sharing and collaboration, as well as editing and saving files. Windows Live SkyDrive provides up to 25 GB of free storage space for consumers using the service.

Users of Office Web Apps can work offline too. Documents created using Office Web Apps will be accessible offline through premises-installed Office clients, starting from Office 2003 on up to the current Office 2010 release. New PC buyers using the Office Starter edition (which contains basic versions of Word and Excel) can also access Office Web App-created documents offline. Office Web Apps save files in the newer Office Open XML-based formats introduced in Office 2007, such as .DOCX, .XLSX and .PPTX.

Business users could tap into Office Web Apps for free using Windows Live, but the consumer service doesn't have the controls typically required by organizations, according to Microsoft. For that, SharePoint or a subscription to Microsoft Online Services is needed.

"While Windows Live is great for consumers, it lacks some of the SharePoint capabilities such as manageability, compliance, controls, etc. that are important to enterprise customers," the Microsoft spokesperson explained. "Microsoft Online Services adds a range of additional business services, plus the ability to manage these services with things such as Active Directory integration, auditing, compliance, etc."

Microsoft hasn't clarified whether Office Web Apps will be offered through its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) collection of hosted services or some other service. BPOS does provide that "range of additional services" by hosting applications based on Microsoft Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office LiveMeeting and Office Communications Online.

Still, adding hosted Office to BPOS is part of Microsoft's plan, according to Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Microsoft's roadmap does indicate that the full functionality of Office will become available in BPOS in 2010, but I don't expect deep discounting or pricing comparative to Google Apps," McLeish stated in an e-mail.

McLeish noted that the free consumer version of Office Web Apps will have some limitations. "You can't create a table of contents, use mail merge, and many other advanced features," she wrote. "And there would still be compatibility issues of using Office 2003 in conjunction with a newer version, such as the loss of Smart Art or other newer features only available in Office 2007 or Office 2010."

However, one of the more anticipated features of Office Web Apps -- namely, coauthoring, which allows multiple authors to edit a document at the same time -- will be available to both business users and consumers. However, only two of the Office Web Apps currently support it.

"Co-authoring functionality is available in the Excel Web App and OneNote Web Apps for both business (via SharePoint) and consumer (via Windows Live when released)," the Microsoft spokesperson explained. "Co-authoring functionality is also available in the Word 2010, PowerPoint 2010 and OneNote 2010 client applications."

Businesses could save some money by running SharePoint Foundation 2010, which is available for free.

"I think that it's really important that businesses can use the free SharePoint Foundation Services to enable capabilities like co-authoring," McLeish wrote. "This should make it more palatable for SMBs [small-to-medium businesses] to move to Office 2010."

One caveat is the hardware and software requirements to run SharePoint Foundation 2010. An IT shop will have to have 64-bit hardware running Windows Server 2008 or Windows Server 2008 R2. They also need to have Microsoft SQL Server 2008 with Service Pack 1 or Microsoft SQL Server 2005 with Service Pack 3.

Still, the expense may be worth carrying out an upgrade, using either SharePoint 2010 or SharePoint Foundation 2010, if an organization's business requirements get met.

"For those still on Office 2003 and SMBs, the choice, I think, comes down not just to the new features but what their business requirements are, how users engage with the tools, how mobile/distributed their workers are," McLeish explained. "Other influencers are to stay compatible with partners and customers."

A recent Forrester survey found that one third of organizations planned to upgrade to Office 2010 within the next year, according to McLeish in a blog post. The survey also indicated strong support for upgrading to SharePoint 2010 in about the same time period.

For those organizations less committed to the Microsoft software stack, there are clear software-as-a-service alternatives to Office Web Apps, such as using hosted productivity applications offered by Zoho, Google and others. With Office Web Apps, Microsoft appears to be responding to such competition, but it is taking some risks, according to Bruce Guptill, senior vice president and head of research at Saugatuck Technology Inc.

"Unless the company moves quickly to expand and enhance Office Web Apps to at least match what Google Apps and others deliver right now, Microsoft remains very vulnerable," Guptill stated in a May 14 Saugatuck Technology Research Alert.