Microsoft's Disappointing Free Office Web Apps Make Google Look Good

Last Updated Jun 9, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Microsoft (MSFT) let time -- years -- go by as Google (GOOG) established free Office-style apps online. Now Microsoft is finally trying to recover by offering its free Office Web Apps. Unfortunately, in its quest to protect the Office cash cow, the company has stripped so much from the Web versions that Google remains an overall better choice -- and Microsoft looks like an inept startup putting alpha software live.

Getting into Microsoft Web Apps requires only a Microsoft Live password. It quickly becomes obvious how much the company has left out of these versions when you compare them both to desktop versions and to Google Docs. Start with spreadsheets. You have a choice of Home and Insert. Home offers basic data formatting and table options. Insert lets you add only hyperlinks or tables. You can't add charts, images, or drawings as you can in Google.

What I found dumbfounding was the utter lack of assistance in getting a spreadsheet to do the normal things you'd expect from such an application. For example, I typed in two numbers and then tried to find how to add them. Nothing. Not a toolbar or menu entry in site. I tried typing an equals sign and the word "sum" and, huzzah!, it worked. A little more experimentation showed that typing an equals and then a first letter presents a list of function choices in a pop-up menu. That's fine if you're comfortable with keyboard shortcuts. If not, it's Microsoft's invitation to check out the competition.

Next up, Word. The immediately available range of functions is a little better. You can perform basic font formatting, use predefined styles, perform a spell-check, and insert pictures, clip art, hyperlinks, or tables. But there is no "track changes" capability, vital if you want to share documents, that is available to all users. (Getting track changes, among other things, will depend on your owning Office 10.) At least Google lets users make comments on documents along with a revision history, even if missing full track changes. Microsoft doesn't even offer a dictionary or thesaurus function, as Google does.

Web PowerPoint does offer more sophisticated design to incorporate into a presentation than Google's version, but it fails to include clip art (and given the amount that Microsoft has available online for Office users, this seems a foolish oversight). At least a Google presentation lets you add videos or tables. Microsoft does have an online version of OneNote, but -- big deal. Google provides form and drawing applications.

What Microsoft does offer in every online application is a button to let you open your work in the equivalent desktop application. But apparently having the 2007 versions isn't good enough, at least if you're running Firefox. I clicked the Open in PowerPoint button and got the following:

To open this presentation, your computer must be running a supported version of Microsoft PowerPoint and a browser that supports opening files directly from the Office Web Apps.
The message is loud and clear. Microsoft wants you to have desktop software and to do things its way. Google, in comparison, seems far more focused on what the customer needs. Microsoft has again fallen into its old weakness of running the entire corporate for the old lines of business. Clearly it needs the revenue streams, but the company continues to mortgage its future to protect its past, suggesting that any new efforts in other product lines will continue to stumble and fall.

Image: Flickr user Nesster, CC 2.0.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.