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Microsoft Office Web Apps: Your Key to Free Web-based Productivity

It would have seemed unimaginable ten years ago that today Microsoft would be offering their most popular application, Microsoft Office, for free. Not only are Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and OneNote being offered for free, but they’re also being made available to everyone on the Web. With almost no prerequisites for installation, Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are sure to be a hit and at the right price: free. This article describes what’s available today, how to get started with the Office Web Apps, and what features you can use when using the Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps.
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As Internet access becomes more pervasive, companies are choosing the hosted solution as the primary means of application deployment. Five years ago applications such as email required a client application running on a local computer. Now most Web-based email applications rival the thick client versions without the installation requirement. In the past, the primary drawbacks of moving applications to the cloud were the speed and availability of an Internet connection. Now that these two limitations have all but been eliminated, Web-based solutions make a lot of sense. They provide instant upgrades for all users, access from anywhere, and considerable cost savings due in part to less need for installation and upgrades. In this article I discuss one of Microsoft’s biggest leaps into the hosted solution environment, Microsoft Office Web Apps.

Office Web Apps: Understanding the Basics

Microsoft offers two versions of Office Web Apps. The first option can be installed as a part of a Microsoft SharePoint 2010 installation. Microsoft SharePoint is a powerful tool that provides online collaboration; and, as part of SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has included the Office Web Apps as an installable option. SharePoint is most often used as an Enterprise solution made available on the corporate local network. The other implementation of Office Web Apps is based on Microsoft’s Windows Live platform. Windows Live accounts are free and just require you to create either a Microsoft-branded email address using either @hotmail.com or @live.com, or use your own email account. Following is a look at the Windows Live implementation of the Office Web Apps, which includes completely free versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Currently the Windows Live version of Office Web Apps is not fully functional, but full functionality is slated for the second half of 2010. Today, Excel and PowerPoint allow both editing and viewing of content. Word and OneNote are view only applications. Let’s take a look at how to edit content in these applications.

To get started, all you need to do is visit Microsoft’s Windows Live site at http://www.live.com then follow these steps to create your Windows Live account.

  1. Click the Sign Up button on the right side of the screen shown below in Figure 1.
  2. Fill out the registration form for creating the account. Fill in an email address that Microsoft will host or click “Or use your own e-mail address” if you have an email address you’d like to use.
  3. Enter a password. If you’re using your own email account this password does not need to match (and probably shouldn’t) your email account password; this password is specific to the new Windows Live account you’re creating.
  4. Click the “I accept” button when you are finished.

That’s all that you need to do to get a free Windows Live account.

Once your Windows Live account is created you’re one step closer to using the Office Web Apps. Your documents will reside in your SkyDrive account. Your SkyDrive account is an online storage location which includes 25 Gigabytes of free storage and allows for file sizes up to 50 megabytes. To access your SkyDrive account, click the More link on the top of the screen and select SkyDrive as shown in Figure 2.

Now you should be viewing your SkyDrive folders. By default, you have four folders including My Documents, Favorites, Shared favorites, and Public. You can create additional folders by clicking the “Create folder” link on the top of the window. Besides storage for your documents, SkyDrive offers all sorts of sharing capabilities so you can share folders with other users. For this article, I’ll be storing my documents in the My Documents folder.

You’ll need to have either Office 2007 or Office 2010 installed on your computer, or have access to a file supporting the Office Open XML format. These are the versions of the files with the extensions of .xslx for Excel, .docx for Word, or .pptx for PowerPoint. Start by uploading a document to your My Documents folder. From your SkyDrive folders, click the My Documents folder and then click Add Files. You can either drag and drop the files up to your site, or you can use the traditional browse button approach by clicking the “Select files from your computer” link to upload your files. Once you’ve browsed for the files you want to upload click the Upload button. You should now be back to viewing your My Documents folder with your new Office Document loaded. In Figure 2, I’ve uploaded a Word document.

You should also notice in Figure 2 that there’s now a link to join the preview program. Click the “Join our preview program” link in order to enable the Office Web Apps functionality. You’ll be asked to agree to a license agreement; click the Accept button. At this point, you should have a new menu item “Add” with a small dropdown arrow next to it. Once publicly available, this dropdown will let you create Office Web App documents within your Windows Live account for all of the Office Web Apps – not just Excel and PowerPoint.

With the current version of Office Web Apps you can create Excel and PowerPoint documents, but Word and OneNote are read-only versions. You’re now ready to start working with each of the Office Web App versions of the Office applications. While they are scaled back, they provide the features that most users require, all for free.

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