Office Web Apps to be offered free to all Windows Live users

By Scott M. Fulton, III, Betanews

Banner: Breaking News

This afternoon, a Microsoft spokesperson told Betanews that the company is now beginning the process of notifying selected participants that they have been accepted for inclusion in the company’s Technical Preview program for Office Web Apps. But in another huge example of burying the lead, a blog post that went live minutes ago from Windows Live General Manager Brian Hall states that the complete Web Apps suite, once officially released, will be “available” to all Windows Live users.

As the spokesperson confirmed to Betanews, Hall’s implication is accurate: Everyday users of Windows Live services (which are already free) and who have SkyDrive storage on those services (the first 25 GB of which are free) will have the entire suite available for use from any modern Web browser. A video released today showed Excel Web App (that’s the formal name for it now) running on a Mozilla Firefox 3.5 browser, and on a Windows 7 platform. We’re still awaiting word on non-Windows browsers.

There will be no cost, the spokesperson told us this afternoon, for users of Windows Live SkyDrive. When the Web Apps suite is released, all of them will notice the addition of a Documents tab, from which they’ll be able to launch Office documents. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will be the first three in the suite, although Microsoft confirmed today that an online version of OneNote will be next.

Here’s the specific quote from Hall: “Over time, as the final version is released, the Office Web Apps will become available to all 500 million+ users of Hotmail, Messenger, and other Windows Live services.”

So how will Microsoft make money from this? Businesses will be able to subscribe to a version that the company spokesperson described as providing “more security and control.” Unlike Windows Live, this version will be hosted directly through Microsoft Online Services, where it’s presumed availability and uptime are guaranteed along with safety and stability.

For business users — especially those that are already hosting SharePoint sites — there will be the ability to host Office Web Apps on their own sites, for their own users, potentially as an alternative to deploying the physical software on users’ computers directly.

“All Office volume Licensing customers will have access to the Office Web Apps that they can run themselves on premises,” the spokesperson told Betanews. “This competitive differentiator is an example of the choice we are offering our customers. More than 90 million Office annuity customers will have access to Office Web Apps at launch.”

Update ribbon (small)

3:15 pm EDT September 17, 2009 ยท Betanews received some clarifications from Microsoft later in the day. First of all, additional storage space beyond the first 25 GB will not be available through Windows Live SkyDrive. That might have been a good extra source of revenue for the company for Office Web Apps users, but for now, the spokesperson told us Microsoft is merely considering leasing extra space in the future.

Businesses that are looking for more useful storage options, the spokesperson suggested, may consider investing in SharePoint Online. There, multiple subscribing users are entered into a collective “pool,” the size of which is 250 MB per user.

The spokesperson also confirmed information about platforms: The current build of Office Web Apps for the technical preview has been confirmed to run on Internet Explorer versions 7 and 8 (for Windows); Firefox 3.5 on Windows, Mac, and Linux; and Safari 4 for Mac (not for Windows). Google Chrome was not listed as a supported platform, perhaps for obvious reasons.

That doesn’t mean users can’t give it a shot, we’re told: “If customers prefer to use another browser they should still give the Web Apps a try. While we cannot officially support all browsers, customers will not be blocked from using them. It is a goal of the Web Apps to have broad compatibility and reach,” the spokesperson said.

PowerPoint Web App from the first Office Web Apps technical preview

The first public demonstrations of Office Web Apps reveals a few more items than we saw demonstrated last year at PDC, though not many. Most notably, we see the full set of ribbon controls for PowerPoint Web App, which was not ready for prime time last October. We also see evidence that some of the incomplete Excel functions such as conditional cell formatting have been worked out, along with evidence that the “BackStage” — the replacement for the Office button in Office 2007 — now has a functional counterpart. An abbreviated menu bar (or rather, a category bar for items collected together by the ribbon) now contains a brightly-colored “File” category, which both resembles the BackStage control and also represents the old-style menu bar functionality from Office 2003 and earlier.

A screenshot of Excel Web App from the first Office Web Apps technical preview.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2009

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