Microsoft Office Live Workspaces – Technically inferior and…so boring

After an excruciatingly drawn-out development process, Microsoft’s Office Live Workspaces — the company’s attempt to marry Microsoft Office to the emerging Web services “cloud” — is finally upon us.

And true to form, Office Live Workspaces (OLW) accomplishes its goal in a decidedly Microsoft-like fashion: Eschewing the trend towards hosted mini-versions of popular productivity tools (Google Apps and Zoho Office, for example) in favor of a rudimentary set of collaboration extensions to the company’s “fat client” Office platform.

It’s an evolutionary approach, one that ostensibly is designed to allow Microsoft to pay lip service (embrace) to the whole SaaS model while redefining the concept (extend) of SaaS to include the “Web enabling” of traditional application architectures.

Oh, and it’s also boring as hell. As product launches go, Microsoft Office Live Workspaces has to be one of the most anti-climactic releases of the past decade. Not only does OLW do nothing really new, it doesn’t even do what it does as well as other, competing solutions do.

Sharing like it’s 1999

For example: Sharing an Office document. With OLW, you first upload the document to your Office Live Workspace (or save it to there from within Office via the OLW Connector). Once uploaded, you can set some basic sharing parameters and permissions and advertise it to other “Live” users, who can then preview the document via a fairly robust document viewing plug-in for Internet Explorer.

As soon as someone decides to open the shared document for editing, however, everyone else gets locked out. They can continue to preview the document, but making changes is not allowed until the editing user saves the document and returns control.

This sort of “all or nothing” document check-in/check-out used to be considered state-of-the-art … back in 1999.

Today’s users expect a bit more from their document management systems, including the ability to simultaneously edit parts of documents and merge changes to shared documents.

And lest someone accuse me of being too hard on Microsoft (after all, OLW is a freebie), consider that one of Microsoft’s emerging competitors in this space — tiny InstaColl — is letting you do exactly this kind of shared editing (and more) via its cleverly named Live Documents solution.

Live Documents is still in beta, but when it debuts early next year (also as a free service) it promises to deliver a far more integrated “Live” experience, including highly granular document sharing (down to the cell/row-level in Excel), detailed usage tracking and versioning controls, and the ability to share documents directly from your local desktop (no upload required).

When compared to an innovative solution like Live Documents, Microsoft’s offering looks decidedly pedestrian. I’ve already discussed the shared documents mechanism.

There’s also a shared calendaring function with Tasks/Lists (been there) and a desktop sharing mechanism (done that). In fact, the longer I look at OLW, the harder it is for me to see anything compelling to write about. It’s essentially a mish-mash of recycled ideas that have already been done better, with broader platform support, by others.

Life in Live Workspaces

I tested Microsoft Office Live Workspaces on a Windows Vista system with Office 2007 installed. Registering for OLW requires that you have a Microsoft Live ID account.

OLW also requires Internet Explorer for full functionality. Once authenticated, I was presented with an easy-to-navigate Web dashboard where I could create and manage workspaces, create or upload documents or files, schedule events or tasks, and add comments to existing workspace items.

Inviting users to share a particular workspace object — for example, a document or calendar/list — is as simple as selecting the item and clicking the share button.

You’re then presented with an e-mail header-like set of fields for specifying which “Live” users can edit the document (as opposed to just viewing it) and also allowing you to provide a description of the document being shared. OLW then sends out the invite as an e-mail message with a link that the invitee can click to access the shared document. If they have an existing OLW account they log into that directly. Otherwise, a temporary Workspace is provided for them.

A document preview window, which requires Internet Explorer, allows you to view a document without downloading it for editing.

Overall, the OLW interface is quite intuitive. I had no trouble finding my way around the site and most of the major features and functions were self-explanatory.

In fact, I’m hard pressed to find fault with OLW from an end-user-experience standpoint. Rather, it’s the lack of real innovation — either “under the hood” on the Windows desktop or within the browser itself — that causes OLW to miss the mark.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled.

There are so many great Web services solutions out there — most of them free like OLW — that my expectations keep getting nudged higher and higher.

And with Live Documents just around the corner, it’s hard to get excited about a technically inferior solution that’s late to the party.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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