NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, July 2010
Microsoft Offers Free Online Version of Office
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host
(click to email author)

In the over 10 years I have been writing this weekly column I have used the Microsoft Word installed on my desktop computer for all but a handful of the columns. There were a few columns I wrote while using Open Office as a topic of the column; one column was typed using Google Docs and saved as a Word file to send to my editor. Today I am using Microsoft's recently released Word Web App, which is one of the several Office utilities now available for free at http://www.live.com. Since these applications are online, they can be accessed from anywhere the user has internet access, and are utilized in a browser window.

From the live.com webpage, the office applications can be utilized by clicking on the "Office" link at the top of the page. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are currently available. Registration is required in order to use the Microsoft Live utilities, but registration is fast and free. For those users who may need access to the primary components of Microsoft Office, but do not have it installed on their computers, this service from Live is a viable alternative.

I started by using Live's Word Web App to type this column. The "ribbon" or menu at the top of the browser window is reminiscent of the one in Word 2007, but does not have quite as many choices as the full version of Word 2007 on my computer. While all of the major functions are available, many of the enhancements and "bells and whistles" are not available on the web version. The top line menu choices are "File", "Home", "Insert", and "View". Above the ribbon are small icons to save and undo. Clicking on the "File" tab gives the user choices to open, save, share, close, properties, feedback, and privacy. As I am typing this, I am periodically saving the file in the default .docx (Word 2007) format to Microsoft's SkyDrive, which is Microsoft's server sometimes referred to as "in the cloud". Once saved to the SkyDrive, I can access this file from anywhere.

The default tab on the Word Web App is "Home" which displays the simplified Word 2007 ribbon (menu) with the ubiquitous copy, paste, fonts, formatting, spell check, and another feature which is not in the computer based version of Word, "Open in Word". This "Open in Word" will connect to the Word installed on the computer, and open the document in the computer based Word, but only if a compatible browser is being used. I am using Firefox as my browser as I type this, and clicking on the "Open in Word" icon on the ribbon displays a message that my browser is not compatible. Another anomaly (browser incompatibility) occurred when I tried to copy some text by painting it, right clicking and going to "copy". A window opened that said, "Your browser does not allow access to the clipboard. Use the keyboard shortcuts for cut, copy, and paste instead." Using the keyboard commands CTRL-C allowed me to copy the text I wanted, and CTRL-V allowed me to paste it where I wanted it. This inability to work nicely with some browsers other than Microsoft's lowers my opinions of this product; while it is not a fatal defect, I do not like the idea of being compelled to use Internet Explorer in order to utilize all of the features of the Word Web App. The "Insert" tab on the ribbon allows the user to insert a table, picture, clip art or links. The "View" tab offers the user the choice of an "Editing View" and a "Reading View". One important item missing from the menu is a "Print" button; I could not find any easy way to print a document, other than using the browser print function.

While Word may be one of the most widely used applications, Excel and PowerPoint are also very widely used. The online version of Excel can be accessed by clicking on the Excel icon on the Live - Office web page. The Excel Web App looks much like a simplified version of the full computer based version of Excel, and uses the same interface and commands. By default, files are saved to the SkyDrive in the Excel 2007 .xlsx format. The first thing I noticed on the Excel Web App is that the formula bar (Fx) does not pull down to display the list of available formulae. I also found that the auto-fill functions where dates and cells could be auto-filled by clicking on the corner of a cell and dragging does not work, at least when used in Firefox. The ribbon bar on the Excel Web App looks much like a simplified Excel 2007 menu bar, but lacks some of the choices available on the computer installed version. As with the other Microsoft Web Apps, the spreadsheet can be shared as desired. Also as with the Word App, the icon "Open in Excel" will generate an error. According to the online help, none of the Web Apps will open the computer's Office if using Firefox and Office 2003 or Office 2007; Microsoft's recommended fix is to install Office 2010. The online help also says that the 64-bit version of Internet Explorer is not supported, and that browsers other than Internet Explorer and Firefox are not supported at all. That means that it may be difficult or impossible for the many users of Chrome, Safari, Opera, and other browsers to utilize these otherwise useful Web Apps.

I do a lot of PowerPoint presentations, and I was especially interested to try the PowerPoint Web App. As with the other apps, it saves in the Office 2007 formats, in this case .pptx. The screen looks familiar, but much simplified from the full version of PowerPoint. One item obviously missing from the ribbon (menu) is the "save" button; that is because the PowerPoint Web App automatically saves the presentation. Another feature that is missing is the ability to right click on an image or text box in a slide to add animations or special effects. I easily inserted an image into a slide, and was given a choice of eight picture styles or frames, but could not animate or otherwise add the special effects that I sometimes use in the full version. Other than using some of the more sophisticated features of the full version of PowerPoint, the Web App version is adequate for simple PowerPoint presentations.

I will admit that I do not use Microsoft's OneNote, but it is available as a Web App. Looking much like a Word document, with the addition of a calendar line, when shared, it also shows the other authors and page versions that were accessed and modified. OneNote also allows for images, clipart, links, and tables to be inserted, which can provide a richer user experience. Like Word, the ribbon (menu) in OneNote allows the user to implement traditional formatting and fonts as desired. I could see where OneNote would be useful for taking notes and sharing content. As with PowerPoint, there is no "save" button, as OneNote documents are automatically saved. If the user desires to import a document or image on his computer in the appropriate Web App, the user would click on the SkyDrive link at the top of the Office page, and then "Add Files". The user can then drag and drop files from his computer into the "Add Files" browser window, or files can be uploaded to SkyDrive by clicking on "Select documents from your computer". Documents and other files stored on SkyDrive can be downloaded individually in native format, or all of the files can be downloaded together as a single ZIP file from SkyDrive. I experimented with SkyDrive and the Web Apps and found that this may be a viable choice either as a primary or backup method of doing presentations or working on documents away from my home or office computer, providing there is good internet access. Clicking on the SkyDrive "More" link allows the user to view a file's properties, or delete it from SkyDrive.

One of the strengths of using web applications like these is the ability to work together or collaborate on projects. By clicking on FILE - SHARE others can be authorized to access the file. The share choices can be controlled with a slider that ranges from "Just me" to "Some friends", "Friends", "My friends and their friends", and "Everyone (public)". Specific people can be added to those eligible to share by name or by email address.

While not as feature rich as the full versions of Office, the free Web Apps versions at live.com do offer a viable alternative to those who do not have Office installed on their computers, or who need a portable version of those applications. Many users will find these Web Apps quite useful.

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