Microsoft is to open a new front in its battle with Google on Monday as it takes the first cautious step towards extending its widely used Office software to the internet.
The move is a response to a rival set of online applications developed by Google to handle things such as word processing and spreadsheets. Though they do not yet represent a complete alternative for Office customers, Google’s applications could pose a long-term threat to one of Microsoft’s more profitable businesses, according to analysts.
Microsoft said it would start to accept applications on Monday from anyone who wanted to try out a “beta”, or test, version of its new Web-based features for Office. The test will not begin until later this year but Monday’s news marks the first confirmation that Microsoft is ready to respond to Google.
Rather than representing a full online alternative to its desktop software, Microsoft’s service will only bring limited additional capabilities.
“They’re not going to push the envelope,” said David Smith, an analyst at Gartner. He called the move “conservative” but added that it was an “important first step” as Microsoft starts to shift the focus of Office to the internet.
The new Microsoft feature will let users upload their Office documents to free personal websites, rather than save them on their computer hard drives. They will then be able to read or edit those documents from other machines, while also inviting other people to the password-protected sites to do the same.
However, unlike Google’s browser-based applications, Microsoft said users of its new service would only be able to create or edit online documents if they have Office software running on their PCs. It will also add some limited browser-based features for people without Office, allowing them to read and comment on online documents, and to create simple lists.
Chris Caposella, the product manager for Office, said that most internet users already use Office software, and that rather than introducing a stand-alone internet service, Microsoft’s intention was to give its software customers useful new features free of charge.
“I think they’re being practical about it,” said Kyle McNabb, an analyst at Forrester. “We don’t see a lot of enterprise adoption of Google apps,” he added, meaning that Microsoft did not need to react more radically as it starts to move Office to the Web.
The cautious strategy represents a deliberate decision by Microsoft to remain a “fast follower” in online applications rather than trying to compete with Google directly, said Mr Smith.
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