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Microsoft relaunches its free online version of Office

Microsoft (MSFT) has been hard at work competing with its own missteps recently, it seems. Take Microsoft Office: An oft-heard complaint is that Redmond needs to offer a free alternative to Google Docs.

Indeed. Google Docs is free, while the cheapest version of Office is $100/year. What most people don't realize is that Microsoft has offered a full-featured, completely free online version of Office for over a year.

Why is this such a secret? In part, because Microsoft called it Office Web Apps, an ugly and confusing name if there ever was one. Also, it was only available from within the Web interface for SkyDrive (now called OneDrive).

It's still there. Just go to OneDrive and click the Create dropdown at the top of the page to see options for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. But recently, Microsoft mercifully revamped the suite in a way that makes it easier to use and telegraphs its existence to a much broader audience.

For starters, Microsoft has rebranded Office Web Apps as Office Online, a very logical and self-explanatory name that the service should have had from day one. (Perhaps the holdup was that Microsoft referred to its Office Website as Office Online.)

Moreover, Office Online is now available from the Office website. When you land on Microsoft's online home for Office, you're presented with a simple and uncluttered landing page with modern tile-style buttons to launch Word, Outlook, OneNote, PowerPoint, Excel, and more.

There are still links to go to the Office product page, access templates, and more, but the main focus of the site is now to get you into an online version of Microsoft Office quickly and efficiently.

When you click on one of the Office app buttons, the program launches in your browser -- not unlike Google Docs -- very quickly. If you're not already signed in with a Microsoft account, you'll be prompted to sign in or create one. Don't worry: There's no subscription. You can use Office Online without already owning a copy of Office.

Once you're in Office Online, you can switch among the different apps by clicking the arrow at the top left of the page. It drops down a toolbar which lists all the online Office apps, and lets you switch among them by opening each selection in its own tab.

The changes to Office Online are long overdue and a much welcome improvement. They come hot on the heels of Microsoft's other big rebranding exercise: Changing the name of SkyDrive to OneDrive, and rolling out new free storage upgrade promotions.

And of course, this change fits in well with Microsoft's other big changes to Office, such as the long-awaited Office for iPad suite, and the recently announced less expensive, Personal edition of Office 365.

Photo courtesy Microsoft