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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 1, 2007 at 10:50 AM

Office Live: A mix of catchup and Tabasco

Tons of coverage today about Microsoft’s Office Live announcements, but not many reporters are warbling about antitrust.

A lot of the focus is on Workspace, the consumerish new service that lets Office users store, access and share documents online.

Sure it’s partly a response to Google, but it’s also just catching Office up to 2007. Workspace is belated acknowledgement that Office has been too tethered to the desktop for too long and lacked a lightweight way for users to share and access documents remotely.

You could install a Sharepoint server and add those capabilities to your business, but that’s overkill for most people.

So users were forced to craft workarounds. Then Google and Office 2.0 startups built products that started to fill this need, while Microsoft futzed with its online strategy.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s say you’re composing a Word document at work, and want to continue working on it from home.

Unless your company has a fancy (expensive and complicated) system for providing remote access to your desktop, you probably e-mail the document to yourself — via Hotmail, Gmail or a Yahoo Mail account most likely. You even e-mail to a work address, if you access remotely through Exchange.

When you get home, you open up the attachment, do the work and send it back. If you want to share, you probably just e-mail the attachment around. It’s easy, but now the company is storing the original, the edited version and the copies in its e-mail system and documents are spread all over the Web at different sites.

Others may move documents around on a portable memory device, like a USB stick, but that’s more complicated than it should be — why can’t you just turn on a computer, any computer, and be able to reach your stuff? That’s how it works with online applications like Google’s, but they’re not as powerful as Office and don’t work so well when you’re offline.

The same goes for sharing. Most people probably still e-mail stuff around. Another option is to set up a Web page, use a Wiki service or try one of the various online storage and collaboration tools that are out there.

Microsoft’s late to the game, but I think a lot of people will still opt to use a service that feels like an extension of the Office application they’re already using. Workspace will also appeal to people who haven’t embraced the early solutions.

I’ve tried several online storage and backup services and they’re always too complicated. It would be great to have a built-in, simple option in Office to “Save to Workspace” alongside “Save to disk” — or even both, so you’re constantly backing up documents online.

From that perspective, Workspace is catching Microsoft up to Gmail more than Google Docs. Ever since Gmail pioneered vast, free online storage, millions of people have used it to access, share and archive mail. It’s free, easy, reliable and searchable. The only downside is that you’re giving up some privacy to Google, but you were probably doing that anyway by using free e-mail.

If you’re already using Gmail as your workspace, it’s easy to start using Google’s applications as well, even though they’re not as powerful as Microsoft’s. To head off this challenge, Office Live Workspace should have been there two or three years ago.

Where Microsoft is spicing things up is in the enterprise offering, the hosted services that it’s offering to companies with 5,000 or more employees.

That’s got to be firing up Microsoft partners who provide similar services. It could also signal a new direction for Microsoft’s enterprise push.

It may also add some zing to licensing conversations with big customers. I’ll bet some will be asking why they should pay extra for the service, since they’re already paying for Microsoft’s all-you-can-eat licenses.

I asked Andy Lees about that during a dinner last week at Daniel’s, where he, Jeff Raikes and other Microsoft executives introduced the online services to about a dozen reporters and analysts.

Lees said the additional charge for the online service is justified because Microsoft isn’t just providing software, it’s also assuming the cost and complexity of running the servers.

That makes sense, but as the Reuters correspondent next to us suggested, it will be interesting to see what happens to Microsoft’s margins.

I’m also curious to see how much servicing Microsoft does in-house. Will it end up offloading the back-end hosting to low-cost, offshore service vendors such as Wipro, or will it compete with the hosted services they provide?

Comments | Topics: Microsoft


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