Let's just get it out of the way—Office Live is, at the moment, only worth your time if you prefer to edit words, spreadsheets and other documents in Microsoft's Office products. Google Docs, Zoho and most any other online office suite gives you more freedom and functionality on the web, but Office Live's value proposition is its semi-seamless integration with desktop Office apps. But if you're one of the many, many people who spend a lot of time inside Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, Office Live can be a set-and-forget way to back up, share, and (kind of) collaborate on documents. I spent some time looking around the beta version and brought back a few screenshots to share, after the jump.
To get started, you need to sign up at the Office Live Workspace site, and probably wait a bit. I pre-registered for a beta account in early December and received my login about a month later. You also need a Windows Live account (which you already have if you use Hotmail, MSN Messenger and Passport services). Once you're past the usual info/password/captcha forms, you arrive at a fresh, clean "Workspace." It's a surprisingly minimalist page with just a few necessary buttons. Here's how it looks after uploading a few sample files:
First things first: The "New" button doesn't let you create new Office documents; those have to be created in a desktop Office app and synced to Office Live. To do that, one hits the "Install Office Add-In" button and runs a small installer. You'll then see a new toolbar in your Office apps, which gives you new web-enabled "Open" and "Save" options, as well as a link to the Office Live site (yours will likely look better than mine, as I'm running an old copy of Office XP—the oldest that Office Live supports).
Once you open a document from Office Live, saving changes locally will sync them to the online document. You can view it online (and, obviously, Ctrl+C copy it), download a copy, add a viewable comment, as well as "share" it with other people (which we'll get to in a bit). As of this writing, you can store 500 MB in files at Office Live.Here's what a document opened online looks like:
Note the explanatory line appearing right above the text—you're supposed to be looking at this thing in Word if you want to make changes. Click "Share" and you can enter email addresses to give other people access to your online documents. There are, however, three caveats, although one is only temporary:
- The contributors must also have Office software installed (big surprise, I know).
- Since Office Live is an invitation beta at the moment, there's a good chance the recipients won't have an account, and so can't quickly import the document even if they do have Office software.
- There's no same-time collaboration—if one person is editing a document, others are locked out.
Like its desktop counterparts, Office Live has a leg up when it comes to project templates and organization. Creating a new "Workspace," which is basically like creating a new container folder, gives you some handy templates to choose from, if that's your thing.
Beyond documents, Office Live integrates Microsoft's ShareView application to give users the ability to share their whole screen, or just certain applications, with up to 15 other users. Of course, those you share with must also have Live accounts and install the ShareView application, which runs on XP or Vista. Here's how the controls look from ShareView:
While you can't create entire new documents, Office Live does have a small, semi-helpful "Web Notes" tool that lets you create basic text files for sharing and placing in Workspaces. There's no spell check and no instant Word importing, however, so it's mostly for on-the-go lists and the like.
Put it all together, and you've got either a kind of online training wheels introduction to storing and sharing documents online, or an online collaboration tool for those who swear by their Office apps.
Have you gotten your Office Live sign-up and found it useful? Does the Office integration make it more appealing than other online suites, or do Google Docs, Zoho and the like have you covered? Share your impressions in the comments.