Earlier this week, Microsoft launched its Facebook connected online office suite Docs.com. Docs offers online versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Users can also choose to share these documents with their Facebook friends. Overall, Docs falls somewhat short of being a replacement for a desktop office suite. Even though it offers a better interface than Google Docs and Zoho, its functionality often feels deliberately crippled in order to push users to use (and buy) Microsoft Office.
Word Web App
Among the three tools in Docs, the Word web app comes the closest to fulfilling its promises. While it isn't ready for managing highly complex documents, it's more than sufficient for editing standard text documents collaboratively.
The Word web app includes all the basic editing features one would expect from a stripped-down version of Word, but you can't add footnotes, for example, or insert tables from your Excel files. Thankfully, though, Word will not strip any of these features out of the file. Once you download the file or open it up in Word, your footnotes and will reappear.
This ability of Word to keep a document's formatting shows that Microsoft deliberately chose not to support these features in the web app.
Excel Web App
Among all of the apps, the Excel app is the most basic of the three apps included in the suite. It can only read documents in Microsoft's Office 2007 format, for example, while all the other tools also support older formats. That, by itself, could be a show-stopper for some users, but the most egregious omission here is that there is no graphical interface for entering a formula. Instead, you have to type every formula by hand, which is a slow and error-prone process.
The good news, though, is that the Excel web app can read all the formulas in imported files. It's clear, though, that the app is only really meant for editing existing documents and not for creating new ones.
PowerPoint Web App
The PowerPoint web app did a nice job at opening every PowerPoint file we threw at it. When it comes to editing, however, the app is also very stripped down. You can use it to create a basic outline of your presentation or change the order of your slieds, for example, but you can't add floating images, backgrounds and resize text and image fields. You can, however, add and edit SmartArt clips.
While the whole office suite ran very well in all the browsers we tested (except for Safari on the iPad, which displayed the documents just fine but crashed when we tried to edit), Microsoft still has to fix before Docs can become a run-away hit. While Docs has no issues importing most Microsoft Office documents, editing uploaded documents can be tricky. If you set Microsoft Office on the desktop to track the changes you make to a document, for example, the web apps will refuse to let you edit the document. We also ran unto issues with image uploads, which, at times, didn't finish. Docs also often complained that the images we tried to upload were not compatible with Docs, even though they were just standard JPEGs.
Microsoft clearly wants users to see Docs as an addition to the traditional Microsoft Office desktop suite and not as a replacement for Office. After using Docs for a while it quickly becomes obvious that a lot of the limitations Microsoft imposed are not due to the fact that Docs runs in the browser, but simply due to the fact that Microsoft didn't want to include them. While Microsoft is partnering with Facebook on this project, Docs feels like it is stuck between two worlds: the new reality of how people collaborate and share content online - and Microsoft's intent to preserve its old revenue streams for as long as possible.
To some degree, Docs feels similar to Apple's office suite for the iPad. While Pages, Numbers and Keynote on the iPad are sufficient for most basic tasks and hold a lot of promise, users with more than the most basic needs will come away frustrated.Return to microsoft news headlines
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