by George Heymann

Microsoft offers alternative to pricey Office Suite [update]

Back in April, I wrote about free open source software alternatives to expensive retail software. One of the packages featured was Open Office . Open Office is an excellent, fully functional free Microsoft Office Suite replacement.

For those of you still on the fence about purchasing the expensive Microsoft Office Suite or using the free, open source alternatives, you have another option — the Microsoft Office 2010 Web Apps.

You can access the Microsoft Office Web Apps on Skydrive by logging into your free Microsoft Live account. You can use your Microsoft Live, Skydrive (free, password-protected online storage), Messenger or Hotmail password to access the applications.

If you don’t have an account, you can register for one at . Once you log in, you will be able to create and edit Word 2010, Excel 2010, Powerpoint 2010 and One Note 2010 documents without having to buy an Office 2010 desktop license.

The web apps are being promoted by Microsoft as online companions to its full desktop counterparts. The apps allow you to access and do light editing or sharing of Office documents. They are not intended as full featured replacements.

The suggested minimum system requirements for the Microsoft Web apps are:

• Processor – 64-bit; Dual Processor; 2 GHz
• RAM – 4 GB for standalone; 8 GB for Server
• Hard Disk – 80 GB

Supported browsers:
• IE7 and greater on Windows
• Safari 4 and greater on Mac
• Firefox 3.5 and greater on Windows, Mac and Linux

I initially accessed the apps on an underpowered PPC Mac, 2 GHz; G5 on Mac OS X 10.4.11, 1.5GB Ram with Firefox — and with a powerhouse PC with a 3.06 GHz i7 950 with 6 GB Ram on 64-bit Windows 7 using Chrome (an unsupported browser).

My initial experience using the Microsoft Office Apps was a mixed bag. Typing within the Word app is very fluid on both systems but I experienced some lag while editing on the Mac System.

Even while doing light editing, inserting the cursor at various points in the document or holding down the backspace key to make corrections were slightly laggy — enough to be unsettling. It felt to me as if the keystroke or mouse click had not registered when it in fact had. But the resulting response was just slightly delayed.

On the PC system with 6 GB of memory, the editing wasn’t an issue. The only perceivable lag was a slight latency when the program had to pull or save data from the cloud. The difference in performance wasn’t a Mac versus PC issue but rather how the systems were equipped.

I also found the menu system across all of the web apps somewhat confusing. Instead of offering menu options from a unified menu system, it presented different menu options depending on what view you’re in for a particular document.

For example, when editing a document, the file menu gives you one set of options. But if you want to save a copy of your work locally or print a copy of the document, you must first switch views from “editing view” to “reading view” before you are presented with that option. I’m not sure why this dual menu system was necessary for the Microsoft Web apps.

Mileage test sheet on Excell webb app with Open Office inset.

I had similar problems in the Excel Web app on the under-powered Mac system. Entering and editing of data was somewhat laggy and when I recalculated the spreadsheet, it made the program freeze for a second or two. The response on the PC system that exceeded the hardware requirements was acceptable.

Loading a Powerpoint presentation wasn’t what I expected, and also was a multi-step process. Typically on a desktop application, you click on the “file menu” and browse to the file you want to load. With this web app you must first go to your Skydrive (cloud storage) and upload the file you want to view or edit. Once the file is imported you are free to view or edit it.

Once loaded, the presentation functioned flawlessly with the slide transition effects intact.
I had printing problems when trying to output from the web apps and wasn’t able to print across an office network. Also, I  wasn’t able to determine what the cause of the problem was. I was, however, able to print without problems from the desktop equivalent on the same network.

I had better luck printing on my home network. At first, the files wouldn’t spool but after I did a reset on the printer it worked without further problems.

In summary, the Microsoft Web apps are an excellent addition to the Microsoft Office line. If you have a properly equipped system the apps should provide an excellent way to view documents and do light editing on the go.

I’ve been using the Microsoft Web apps on and off since they were first introduced as beta applications in June. Although they appear now to be generally more responsive, they have not replaced my full-featured desktop Open Office Suite for everyday use.

Microsoft recently held a Windows Phone 7 event in which company officials announced the first 10 handsets to support the new mobile platform.  Among the phone’s many features is a tightly integrated Microsoft Office 2010 compatible mobile apps experience.

I’m speculating the mobile app files will be able to be synced across Microsoft’s online Skydrive. Being able to automatically sync then edit the phone files would give the Microsoft Office Web apps some added functionality. The new Microsoft Phone 7 platform is scheduled to be released on Nov. 8.


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