Microsoft has launched Office Online, a free, online version of its Office productivity suite. It's not surprising that it has been launched, as Microsoft continues to hone its cloud and unification vision. What is surprising for many people is finding out that Microsoft already had a free online version of Office available.
Satya Nadella's appointment as the new CEO of Microsoft has served to reinforce the company's commitment to cloud services. Prior to the appointment, Nadella had been executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group and in his email to Microsoft employees on his first day as CEO, he wrote, "Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world."
The launch of Office Online is, in reality, a relaunch of Office Web Apps, the existing free online version of Office. Despite being a free version of the most successful and ubiquitous productivity suite on the planet, Office Web Apps suffered from two major problems – no one knew what the name meant, and no one knew it existed. Microsoft acknowledged these very issues when it announced the launch of Office Online earlier this week.
A third reason for rebranding the platform was strategy. It may be coincidental that OneDrive, the rebranded SkyDrive cloud storage platform, and Office Online were launched so shortly after Nadella's appointment, but it's no coincidence that they were launched so closely together. OneDrive and and Office Online are closely integrated and are set to be central players in Microsoft's push into the cloud space.
Although they have been launched separately and presented as different products, OneDrive's productivity tools and those that are accessed at Office Online are in fact the same product, as evidenced by the OneDrive URL that users are redirected to when they access Word,Excel or PowerPoint via Office Online. By relaunching these two services together, Microsoft has created a coherent and integrated set of services for storage and productivity that it hopes will be the tipping point for pulling its consumer users over to the cloud.
On arriving at office.com, users are presented with a clear proposition. This is Office Online. You can save documents online, share them with others and collaborate online. Best of all, it's free. The navigation options are clear and limited – simply click on the Office program you want to use. Users just need a Microsoft account to gain access.
The first thing to note after opening one of the Office programs is the master navigation bar across the top of the screen. As well showing the document's saved location and giving users the option to share the document, navigate to their account and sign out, it provides a drop-down menu with access to the other programs in the Office Online suite. The menu is big and bold, using the trademark tiles of Windows 8. Clicking on another service will open it in a new tab so as not to navigate the user away from work they are doing in the existing tab. It's noticeable that the Outlook, People, Calendar and OneDrive applications are listed before (or "to the left of") Word, Excel or PowerPoint, perhaps as a nudge for users to explore some of these lesser-known offerings.
When a user opens a new Word, Excel or PowerPoint document, a large banner across the screen invites them to choose an action. Users can create a new document, browse templates or view documents that have recently been saved to their OneDrive account.
The templates for Word, Excel and PowerPoint are presented in one library and can be easily switched between. The library is extensive, providing users with plenty of options. Once a template is selected, it is saved to the user's OneDrive and opened in the relevant Office program.
Anyone who has used Office 2007 or later will be familiar with the ribbon menu. Where it was once detested and derided, the ribbon brings a reassuring sense of familiarity here. Indeed, the entire interface is a satisfyingly close representation of Office's offline versions. People who have used Office before will have no trouble finding their way around.
The design across all of the Office Online suite programs treads the fine line of form and functionality well. Microsoft's use of the "metro"-style elements makes the experience easy to understand and to use.
Whilst much of the functionality is the same in Office Online as it is in the offline version, there are some nice extra touches that have been incorporated.
First things first, Office Online saves your work automatically. For anyone who's ever experienced the crushing pain of losing hours of work after forgetting to save a document in Office, this will be a welcome addition. There doesn't appear to be any document history available as there is in Google Docs, however.
Changing a document's name simply involves clicking on it at the top of the screen. It's so simple and intuitive that one wonders why such functionality hasn't been include in other versions of Office.
The prominent Share button in the top navigation bar allows users to distribute documents easily with different permissions. Users can invite people to access the document whether or not they have a Microsoft account, and allow them to edit or just to view it. URL links to the document can also be created, with different links determining whether users can just view the document, edit it or find it publicly in your OneDrive shared folder.
A button in the menu bar provides users will the option of opening the document in the offline version of Office, assuming they have it installed on their computer. This is a lovely piece of integration to make switching between editing a document in the Online and desktop versions of Office as seamless as possible.
There's also a search box in the menu bar imploring users, "Tell me what you want to do." The idea, presumably, is that this provides quick access to functionality that users might otherwise not know how to access. It works reasonably well, too. If you type in "page" for example, the different options for size, orientation and numbering, amongst other things, will be presented in a dropdown list.
Although the applications can be accessed from office.com, the more natural starting point for users will ultimately be OneDrive. Mirroring Microsoft's classic folder approach to navigating a desktop, OneDrive is the place that users can save and file all of their documents – and the place where they are likely to browse their saved documents as they would in desktop folders. By incorporating the master navigation bar into Outlook, meanwhile, new users are introduced to the rest of the suite of products and existing users are provided with easy access.
For those who already use Microsoft products such as Outlook and OneDrive as their main online ecosystem, Office Online pulls things together in a mercifully joined-up way. Switching between programs is quick and provides a more efficient way of working with them. For people who haven't used Microsoft's online product set, this simplicity and coherence shows quickly what is available and how to access it.
The launch of OneDrive and Office Online is as clear an indication of Microsoft's cloud and unification aspirations as any. Not only that, but it finally positions Microsoft as a direct competitor to Google in the cloud storage and productivity spaces.