I've been testing Microsoft's new Office 2010, along with its equally important companion SharePoint 2010, and trying to decide where it lies between brilliance and disaster. It's certainly an improvement on Office 2007. I was relieved to find that Outlook 2010 performs much better than Outlook 2007 did on its first release. Still, the perenniel question with Office is whether you will actually notice the difference, other than a slightly changed colour scheme, as you get on with typing documents in Word and calculating spreadsheets in Excel. While there is the usual laundry list of new features, there's nothing here as dramatic as the switch from menus to the Ribbon in Office 2007.
The real difference lies elsewhere, in how Office is entering the realm of cloud computing. The likes of Google and Salesforce.com have a straightforward proposition: ditch your desktop applications, store everything on our servers, and run your applications in the browser. Microsoft cannot afford to take that line, since Office is its biggest source of income after Windows itself. It has come up with something more nuanced, offering what it hopes are the most beneficial aspects of the cloud without displacing desktop Office.
Therefore we have Office Web Apps, with in-browser creation and editing of Office documents, but still tied to the desktop applications if you need to go beyond basic features. Office Web Apps can live on Microsoft's servers, such as SkyDrive and the recently announced Facebook tie-in docs.com, or on your own servers as a feature of SharePoint 2010. You can use them from various browsers on Windows, Mac and Linux. Suddenly, opening and editing that .docx or .xlsx - these being the controversial Open XML formats - on Linux is not such a problem. I was pleased and surprised by how much the Web Apps improve SharePoint and change the way I use it.
At the same time, as I dug into the Office Web Apps, I found more and more frustrations. The Office Web Apps use the very same formats as desktop Office, but not all their features are available. For example, you cannot insert a new sheet into Excel via the Web App. In fact, there are so many things you cannot do that listing them would take many pages. That doesn't mean the web apps are useless, they are fine for the basics. Microsoft's solution if you need an unavailable feature: just open them in desktop Office. But what if I'm on Linux? Tough.
This same issue leads to problems which are close to being bugs. Let's say I'm in an Internet cafe using a machine that does not have Office installed, you are in the Office, and we are happily collaborating on an Excel spreadsheet - Office Web Apps even lets us edit it simultaneously. The spreadsheet is nearly done, you feel it needs a little jazzing up, and you open it in Excel to add some Word Art. Oops. Not only is the Word Art invisible to me, but I can no longer edit the spreadsheet. Sorry, says Excel Web App. Incompatible features.
It's something that cannot happen in Google Docs, or Adobe's Acrobat.com, where the web application is the only one that you use. I can see this kind of thing causing endless frustration. Note too that you get no warning when editing a document in a way that introduces web app incompatibility.
Office Web Apps is something we did not have before, and you can see it as glass half full, or glass half empty. Personally I expect to use the web apps, and if they help bring an end to the terrible practice of collaborating by emailing documents to all and sundry, I will be grateful.
Nevertheless, as a cloud offering the Office Web Apps are somewhat broken. It will be fascinating to see how this evolves. My guess is that the Web Apps will improve over time, to the point where installing desktop Office becomes unnecessary for many of us. Microsoft may not like the sound of that, but it is better for the company than the alternative, which is not using Office at all. Never bet against the cloud.