With Web-based applications from Google and Zoho becoming popular, Microsoft is scrambling to modify its standalone desktop software model with online collaborative tools. Its response, the new Live Workspace program, operates in concert with desktop Office applications and lets you store and share Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents as well as event lists and contacts online. Unlike true Webware, though, Office Live Workspace requires you to have a licensed copy of Microsoft Office installed locally on your machine if you want to create or edit documents. Workspace documents are meant for viewing, sharing, and commenting only.
How Office Live Workspace Works
With the help of a free downloadable add-on, all your Office apps will show an additional taskbar that lets you log into the online Workspace, which you can create using a Microsoft Live, Messenger, or Hotmail account. From there you can create new documents that get saved to the Workspace (each user gets 500MB of storage). In turn, you can access your documents from any browser anywhere and see the files or open them in the native Office apps available on the local PC. Workspace triggers the opening of Office apps and downloads the document into the program. The idea here is to give users the full functionality of desktop applications and extend them with the collaborative and versioning strengths of Web apps.
Performance and Collaboration
Generally, Workspace works as advertised. The link to Office apps performed quite well in both directions. You can create discrete Workspaces online for different projects and even apply templates to them. A Job Search template, for instance, includes a set of Word document templates for rsums and follow-up letters. Like other Web apps, every online document is saved in multiple versions, meaning every contributor's changes are documented and you can restore to instances recorded minutes earlier.
There is also a robust and very clear sharing mechanism. The system has you send e-mail invitations to others to grant them viewing or editing rights to a given workspace, much like you'd see in Google Docs. The users you're sharing the document with, as well as their changes and any comments, are registered in a right-hand Activity pane. It is disappointing, however, that a richer online document editor is not included. You can make basic notes and create contact and event lists in the browser, but not much else.
Serious Beta Issues
Still very much in beta, Live Workspace has glitches and limitations. The Editing function was not working in Firefox when we tried it, and Internet Explorer kept reinstalling an ActiveX plug-in whenever we logged on. So far, only Outlook 2007 performs real two-way synchronization of contacts, events lists, and tasks, although support for Office 2003 is expected. At times, the Activity pane in Office applications produced error messages rather than updates of colleague activity with shared documents. A SharedView mechanism for sharing a screen with invitees would not download properly on our machine.
Office Live Workspace Verdict
In general, Microsoft is leveraging the power of its installed base of Office applications very effectively. The versioning works as promised, and sharing documents is easy enough. We wish you didn't need a desktop version at all, however, and we're eager to see two-way synchronization extend to Office 2003. When the kinks get worked out, Live Workspace will be a great everyday tool, instead of just a promising demo.