Mobile Technology News & Mobile Fun

Inside Office Web Apps: Will Word Web App hold a candle to Word 2010?

By Scott M. Fulton, III, Betanews

One of the more startling announcements we’ve received from Microsoft since the first word that Office will support OpenDocument Format as an alternative default, was last week’s news that access to its forthcoming Office Live Apps would be open to all users for free. We’re being told again and again that there’s no catch, no asterisk with small print behind it, that Microsoft is perfectly happy to let everyone edit Office documents online for free.

But does the Technical Preview give any indication that these Web apps are ready for prime time? For Microsoft to make its case against Google, Zoho, and others that produce free-for-general-use Web apps (although Google Apps’ continued free state has become debatable of late), it has to demonstrate that it can carry not just the look-and-feel, but also the functionality and reliability, of traditional Office applications into the Web apps space. This is especially true if Microsoft truly does have a plan to earn revenue indirectly from the product, whether through advertising or commercial derivative services.

Maybe Office Web Apps don’t have to be Microsoft Office, but as representatives have discussed with Betanews, the company’s feeling is that the final product does need to address the everyday needs of about 90% of its usage base, or perhaps 90% of the needs of all of its usage base. If that mark represents the goal post, then Microsoft has a long way to go still to reach that mark, based on what we’re seeing in the initial Technical Preview of Office Web Apps.

The storage format for Office Web Apps is ISO 29500/Open Office XML, which means its versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel will not display or edit the .DOC, .PPT, and .XLS files, respectively, from Office 2003. Right now, the Technical Preview of the Word app only displays Word files, without any editing facilities. This despite Microsoft having shown us relatively a relatively workable Word Web app with editing functionality as early as October 2008.

In Betanews’ initial tests, we uploaded a relatively complex Word document file to SkyDrive, the new name for Windows Live’s free cloud-based storage facility. This file was originally edited for typeset-quality, which meant that it was designed to be published in print exactly the way it appears. So it has not only inset illustrations, but also overlaying, semi-transparent objects with pointers and arrows, as well as a history of annotations representing the back-and-forth comments of various editors on the publishing project. And it utilized fonts which were not installed on our test machine — on purpose, we wanted to see whether the Word app would handle the situation as gracefully as Word 2007.

The Word Web app’s ability to display this almost horribly complex document was complete and thorough in almost every respect, leading us to believe that if Microsoft intends to let Web users see such features as overlaid graphic objects and embedded annotations, then it’s just one baby step further to eventually enable them to create and edit those features.

Word Web App Technical Preview renders a complex document on-screen, but doesn't let you edit (or print) it yet.

Although the Word app doesn’t give us any tools to check for whether it fudged such technical factors as the height of the footer or the widths of the margins on even- and odd-numbered pages, what we’re able to eyeball on the display leads us to believe it does take these variables into account. Specifically:

  • Variations in odd- and even-numbered pages were handled accurately, including in the titling for footers.
  • Custom page numbering was observed, which is important for a document such as ours that’s a chapter from the middle of a book (it doesn’t start at page 1).
  • Parsing comments and annotation was handled smoothly, including placing comments outside the margin but near to the passages to which they refer, and accurately marking those passages.
  • Anchoring embedded graphic objects to included illustrations, which are themselves anchored to points on the page rather than to elements of text, appears to be handled accurately.
  • Font substitution seems fair, especially when a font used in a document is not installed on the system. The Word app does not use Web fonts in the standard sense, but rather a set of fonts accessible by Silverlight (so we were told by one Microsoft developer) plus those fonts installed on the client system. This way, a Word document that uses any number of fonts from the author’s system may be visible on the author’s system through the Word Web app in close to, if not exactly, the same way.
  • Rules for included styles appear to be followed, which include for margins, paragraph bullets and numbering, and variable leading (vertical space between lines of text).

We did notice two important bugs, even for this early stage: Although our Word app rendered the document on-screen accurately, it was incapable of printing it at all — apparently, documents that exceed certain limitations on content cannot be printed. Also, despite the fact that we could scroll through the complete document, the “Loading” indicator in the middle of the page in the middle of the document, told us that the Word app didn’t know that whether it had actually completed loading the document — or more technically, whether it had reached the EOF (end-of-file indicator).

Next: Will Microsoft really deliver the full Office experience online?

The 'My Documents' selection panel in SkyDrive which launches the Office Web Apps Technical Preview.

What we were preparing to discover with the Word Web App was something on the level of what we’ve seen with other attempts at Web or mobile apps that parse Office documents: a warning that certain features were not supported. (Indeed, we actually did see warnings like this with Excel Web App, which we’ll tell you about later this week.) Instead, we saw that Microsoft was making an effort to have its Web component handle the more intricate parts of its Word documents with the same ease and lack of constraint as the installed application.

But does that mean Microsoft will let all users edit these elements of the document in the same way? Nothing in the sparse documentation accompanying the Technical Preview suggests that every editing feature offered in Word 2007 or Word 2010 will necessarily be replicated in the Word Web App. Instead, it merely makes reference to a big, prominent Open in Word button, which pushes the document out to the locally installed Word. Ironically, this feature did not work for us, on a system where the Office 2010 Technical Preview was installed.

The fact that this button exists at all, working or not, suggests to us that Microsoft may not feel it’s under any obligation to completely replicate the offline Word “experience” online. And that would make sense if the company plans to present Office Web Apps as a kind of “front porch” for Office 2010, a way to move more customers in the door by drawing those customers toward the door, without giving them full entry until they’re already fully invested in the product.

Last year, however, we were told that the plan was to make Office Web Apps available only to paid and registered Office 2010 customers. In that earlier scenario, a Web Apps user might have higher expectations for the product, having essentially paid for it.
So how much of the “experience” does Microsoft plan to provide? A spokesperson for Microsoft declined comment to Betanews this afternoon, beyond playfully jabbing us for continually badgering the company on this specific issue.
Stay in touch with Betanews as we dive deeper into the Office Web Apps Technical Preview, including with Excel and PowerPoint, and what we may yet be able to learn about a future online incarnation of OneNote.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2009

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