Microsoft's Office Web Applications are currently available only as an early technical preview release, and at this stage the online suite is in a fairly shaky state, but shows some promise for consumers who just need the basic functionality. For business users however, it is already clear that the Office Web Apps are no substitute for the full client versions of the applications.
The technical preview is available only to a very limited number of testers, and currently consists of just three applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint, with OneNote to come later, probably when a public beta of the web apps is made available towards the end of the year.
However, only Excel and PowerPoint support editing of documents in this release, with Word limited to viewing documents only. See the V3.co.uk labs blog for screenshots of the applications.
The technical preview is available via Microsoft's Windows Live services, which is how consumers will access the applications once they are ready. Businesses will access the apps through SharePoint or SharePoint Online.
Comparisons are inevitable with Google Docs, and we found that Microsoft's applications look much more polished and feel more like a full client version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint than Google's do.
However, Google's applications are much more responsive, at least on the test machine we used (running Windows XP SP2). Microsoft's applications take several seconds to open when you click on view or edit, for example, while Google Docs is almost instantaneous.
The applications also have limited functionality compared to their desktop counterparts. We could find no menu option to create or edit a chart in the Excel web app, for example, though charts in existing documents seemed to display fine, and updated if you changed the data they are drawn from.
It is not clear yet if the ability to create charts is a feature that will be left out of the final release, or if it is simply something that Microsoft has yet to implement.
However, Microsoft is pushing document fidelity as one advantage it has over rivals, and we found that all the documents we tested did indeed look exactly as they would if opened in a desktop version of Word, Excel or PowerPoint.
We were also able to access the web apps equally well using either Internet Explorer 8 or FireFox 3.5.
Documents are stored in the SkyDrive web-based storage folder, from where you can upload documents from the computer you are using, or create new ones from scratch.
One minor annoyance is that Microsoft's web apps let you view documents in the older Office file formats, but will only edit files in the new XML formats introduced with Office 2007.
We found that Both Excel and PowerPoint can convert files to the new format, creating a second file and leaving the original intact.
Some bugs are almost inevitable in such an early release, and we found that PowerPoint simply would not open our sample presentation for editing, throwing up an error message every time we tried.
The basic functions are all present, though, including the ability to format numbers, apply text formatting, sort and filter tables in a spreadsheet, and we were able to run through a full-screen slideshow in PowerPoint.
Microsoft seems to have designed the web apps to deliver the best experience with its Silverlight browser plug-in. Although this is not required, we found that PowerPoint's performance improved dramatically with it, and popups constantly nag you to install the Silverlight runtime if this is not present on your computer.
Overall, there is not a great deal that you can actually accomplish with the preview release of Office Web Applications, and it remains to be seen whether users will prefer Microsoft's web-based apps or Google's.
The application that most users will be interested in – Word – cannot really be tested at this point in time, and it seems we will have to wait for the public beta to see how well this stands up against the full client version of Word.