Microsoft rolled out its free Office Web Apps earlier this week, introducing a free, basic Office suite for the web. How does it compare to Google's own Docs offering? Here's a rundown of each web app's strengths and weaknesses.
Where Office Web Apps Excels
Yeah, yeah, that's a pretty bad pun. But it's actually the first descriptor that came to mind.
Microsoft Office Compatibility
As you'd probably expect, when it comes to uploading a complex Word, Excel or PowerPoint document to the web, and having it look the same there as it does on your desktop, Web Apps takes the cake. Until our little test, though, we didn't realise by just how much.
We uploaded a few different Word, Excel and PowerPoint files to both suites and relied on our past experience with Docs. To show you the difference, here's a heavily formatted, corporate-style newsletter — pictures, sub-headings, margins, you name it. We opened it in TextEdit on a Mac, and placed it next to both Google Docs and Office Web Apps.
First, here's how it looks in Google Docs, compared to the original in TextEdit. (Click the image for a larger view):
Not the same, but you might also think, not too bad, right?
Compare that to Office Web Apps' version:
Honestly, until I saw the online Office version, I didn't even know there was supposed to be an image at the top. There's a larger argument to be made about open data formats, along with the sub-argument about rigidly formatted newsletters sent out as Word documents. But if tricky Word, Excel and PowerPoint are a regular part of your online life, Office Web Apps has it all over Google at the present moment.
Font Selection (on Windows)
Another undiscovered quirk of online office suites until today: font selection. When you load Google Docs in any browser on any OS, you get a fairly small but standard set of fonts to choose from, shown here.
Load Office Web Apps on a Windows system, though, and you seem to get full access to all the fonts installed on your system, for both content creation and reading documents with specialised fonts. (Click the image at left for a larger view). That might not matter to everyone, but for those to whom fonts are a pretty big deal, Office Web Apps seems like a more convenient framework.
Storage Space and Access
Where Google offers universal access and constant iterative features for its online apps, Microsoft competes with raw storage space. 25GB to store whatever you need — including pictures, audio and video for use with your docs and presentations — is nothing to sneeze at. And a number of crafty coders have devised ways of mounting SkyDrive to make it just like any drive. Suddenly, Google's heretofore generous 1GB of Docs upload space doesn't seem quite so impressive.
If your life feels incomplete and disconnected without Microsoft's powerful note-taking, doc-organising and life-arranging tool, then you're going to want to get into Office Web Apps. It's not the full-scale version, but you can add, view and edit your OneNote data in fairly clean form, so that's something you're going to either love or not quite understand what the fuss is about. Jason loves OneNote, and gets things done with it. You might feel the same.
Where Google Docs Still Rules
Google's Docs offerings have been on the market a good four years now, so they've had more time to learn what users want and need in an online suite. It shows in the design and function of Docs for day-to-day users.
Interface and Organisation
Not that either web app is particularly pretty, but Google's system of nested folders, tags and powerful search takes the cake over Office Web Apps, which is deeply tied into the Live.com ecosystem, laid out a bit like Hotmail and generally harder to get around if you've got a lot of projects. Simply adding some colour coding would help out Office's layout quite a bit, instead of relying on the beige folder icons that are the norm of Windows apps.
On top of that, Office Web Apps' landing page usually sticks an ugly ad in the lower-right corner, one you're probably used to seeing on the sites of newspapers that have lost touch with their advertisers, blogs hungry for monetisation and other hey-whatever ad sections. It's less than appealing, especially when the design seems to blend into the beige-ish focus of Live.com's design. (Note that you can change your Live.com theme, but the ad doesn't ever go away).
Sharing and Collaboration
In terms of real-time collaboration, Google wins hands-down, because Office offers none. You can share documents for editing and viewing, and the controls are actually quite good for doing so (as discussed further on). But Office is heavy-handed when it comes to editor lock-in — switching between laptops in my own house, I was often locked out of documents because Office considered one "Open in another account", even when I'd shut down the other computer. Google Docs, on the other hand, has recently added Wave-like, real-time collaboration, one my wife and I have used to plan a holiday together on a single document with surprisingly few conflicts. Both apps tie their document sharing into emailed requests and grouped contacts on the Google/Live.com servers; Google's implementation feels a little more easy to grasp.
Google Docs feels pretty fast when you're editing, uploading, loading new documents and even editing presentations with images. Office Web Apps constantly bugs you to install Silverlight for a "faster experience", and doesn't exactly churn and crank after you do install it. Google's certainly got the lead in cloud-based architecture and coding.
Let's face facts: Far more people are enthusiastic Google users than Live.com fans. That wouldn't matter so much, except that among your friends and coworkers, it's more likely for them to be enthusiastic Google users, have a Docs account and know how to edit a Docs file than they are likely to have a Live.com account and know their way around Office Web Apps. It's a first-mover's advantage, and an issue of scale, but it's still there, and worth noting.
Where Docs and Web Apps Tie
For some types of users, a difference between the two web apps won't be a win/lose item, so much as a difference in taste.
Google does a decent job of letting you choose exactly who can view and edit your documents. Office does a surprisingly similar good job, but with a different tool — a sliding scale for each document, setting it to totally public and open, only available to you, available to groups, particular friends and other stops in between. If your life is loaded into Gmail and Google Contacts, Google's contacts and groups might work better, but Office Web Apps has a good system, too.
We'd love to be so sophisticated as to call a winner here. But in all honesty, both Docs and Office Web Apps have pretty utilitarian interfaces, and whether you like one or the other is going to depend on which camp you fall into: the minimalism and keyboard-friendly realm of Google, or the ribbon-ish look of Office, where everything is a button. Neither web tool is meant for all-inclusive utility, and both seem to have stuck to the basic functions of font, spacing and layout in their buttons.
That's our take on the tech giants' online office suites. We'd have loved to include Zoho as a contender but, honestly, there's a lot more to explore and explicate there — perhaps for another post.
How are you like Office Web Apps so far? What needs to be added, and where does it win out over the competition? Tell us your take in the comments.