Office Live Workspace: Microsoft Bets on Power over Portability

ScreenshotMicrosoft has opened up its Office Live Workspace program (still in beta) to anyone worldwide who has a Windows Live ID to sign in with. According to Microsoft, this service “provides anywhere access to documents and enables sharing functionality.” It does indeed to that – but it does so in a way that makes the continuing fundamental differences between Microsoft and web-oriented companies like Google or Zoho clearer than ever.

Signing up for the service is trivially easy; after logging in you get instant access, and it only takes a few moments longer for Office Live to provision a workspace just for you (you can add as many more workspaces as you like to keep things organized). Once logged in, you’ll also want to install the Office Add-In, without which the service is much less useful. If you’ve used SharePoint, you’ll feel more or less at home; in both look and functionality Office Live is a stripped-down SharePoint.

Uploading a document to a workspace is simple, as it should be; just browse, click, and you’re done. At that point, you can view the document online, add comments, or share it with selected users or the entire world. What you can not do is actually edit the document – at least, not online.

Here’s where Microsoft continues to take a different path from vendors of truly online office suites. To edit a document on Office Live Workspace, you first install the Office add-in and then open the host application (Word, Excel, or PowerPoint) on your Windows desktop. Then you’ll see a new toolbar that lets you open documents directly from a workspace. You can make whatever changes you need, and then save directly back to the workspace. Office Live Workspace handles the job of updating the screen of anyone who happens to be viewing online, and also keeps a version history of changes.

On the plus side, this approach means that you don’t have to worry about editing Office documents without having a full-range of power user features at your fingertips: the editor is the full application you’re used to. On the down side – especially for many web workers – to do anything really useful with Office Live Workspaces you still need to be sitting at a Windows machine with Office installed. Despite talk we’ve seen about Microsoft finally “getting it” with regards to the web, this application doesn’t indicate any change from their long-term policy of protecting the Windows and Office desktop franchises.