Office Live Workspace makes online collaboration and document sharing a breeze for SMEs

Microsoft Corp.’s Office Live Workspace, just released into beta, makes it easy for small businesses, workgroups and organizations to collaborate online and share documents.

Even individuals who want to track projects and access documents from more than one PC will find it useful. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated service, and although there remain rough edges and puzzling oversights (which may or may not be addressed in the commercial release), it’s a very impressive piece of work, especially considering its price tag — free for the moment.

The service is not competing against online versions of office suites such as Google Docs or Zoho. It doesn’t offer online versions of Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Rather, it’s a way for departments, small offices and individuals to share documents and collaborate online.

Office Live Workspace lets you store documents, give other people access to those documents and collaborate with other people on the documents. To use it, you’ll need a Windows Live ID. Once you sign up for the ID and service, you get your own workspace on the Web, which you can use to share documents and projects with others. Within this main area, you create individual workspaces for all your projects and documents.

Office Live Workspace is not primarily designed for creating documents directly from the Web. Although it has some rudimentary tools for creating documents, you primarily use the site by uploading documents from your PC or by creating documents using Office on your local PC and then saving them online. This integration with Office is both the site’s greatest strength and an area that still needs some work, as we detail below. The site also includes tools for creating and editing a variety of day-to-day documents without having to use Office, including notes, lists, contact lists and event lists.

Once you’ve established your documents online, you can then invite other people to share them and set sharing rules — for example, allowing certain people to edit documents and allowing others only to read them. The site doesn’t have more sophisticated collaboration tools, such as those for managing workflow or for setting sophisticated rights to documents. That’s not what it’s designed for; Microsoft would prefer that you fork over the money for SharePoint Server for that.

Instead, Office Live Workspace is designed for small businesses and workgroups. Even individuals will find it useful, because it gives them access to their most important documents from any PC — and lets them work together with organizations such as church groups or sports teams.

Getting started and creating a workspace

It’s remarkably easy to create a new workspace. Click the New Workspace button and a pop-up box asks what type of workspace you want to create. You have a choice of a dozen different templates, including a project workspace, a job search workspace, a household workspace or a generic one that you can customize yourself.

Once you’ve made your choice, a different set of prebuilt generic documents will populate your workspace. For example, when I created a project workspace, Windows Live Workspace precreated documents, including PowerPoint presentations, a Word proposal template, a contact list, a project schedule and a to-do list.

You don’t have to use these documents, of course, and in many cases, you won’t. (In fact, you can delete them if you want to.) You can instead upload your own documents by clicking the Add File icon, browsing through your hard disk to the file you want and then adding it. But if you upload files, be prepared to spend a fair amount of time doing it. There’s no way to upload more than one document at a time or to add an entire folder, which makes adding files a very laborious process.

You can share your documents with others on a workspace-by-workspace basis. So, for example, you can share a project workspace with co-workers, a sports team workspace with other members of the team and so on.

When you’re in any individual workspace, click the Share button, and you’ll be led through a series of screens that guide you through setting up rights — who has access to the workspace and whether they can edit documents or just read them. Then type in the e-mail addresses of those with whom you want to share the workspace, and an e-mail is sent to them with details. (They’ll need to have a Windows Live ID to share your workspace. If they don’t already have one, the e-mail will include instructions for signing up.)

There are only two levels of sharing: editor level and viewer level. Anyone to whom you give editor status can edit any document in the workspace; viewers can only view them. Normally, you can only give people editor status on an entire workspace, not to individual documents. However, there is one precreated workspace titled “Documents” that lets you share documents on a document-by-document basis.

The site also has some useful document-control features — notably, the ability to save multiple versions of documents. If more than 12 hours have passed since you or someone else has revised a document, Office Life Workspace saves it and gives it a version number. You can then view or revert to that previous version at any point. In addition, you can save a version of a document manually as well.

Integration with Microsoft Office

You can view any document online, but you can’t edit most of them online. Instead, to edit Office documents that you’ve created or shared, you’ll need Microsoft Office. You can install an add-in that lets Office open, save and create documents to Office Live Workspace.

The add-in is integrated directly into Office. In Office 2007, you’ll find a new entry when you click the Office button, pictured nearby, that lets you save directly to any of your workspaces or open documents from any of your workspaces. In earlier versions of Office, the add-in installs as a tool bar.

Here’s where Office Live Workspace clearly needs work. You may have problems getting the add-in to work. If you use Windows Vista and Office 2007, for example, you’ll need to install a second add-in to make it work properly. With any luck, glitches like this one will be fixed by the time Office Live Workspace gets out of beta.

More troublesome, Office Live Workspace falls seriously short when it comes to integrating files on your hard disk with files online. At best, it’s confusing. At worst, you could find yourself working on different versions of the same document without being able to figure out which is the most recent version.

Let’s say, for example, you’re working on a file on your hard disk. You decide that you’d also like to save a copy on a workspace. Using the add-in, you save it to your workspace. Neither Office Live Workspace nor Office on your computer will tell you that from now on when you work on that file, you’re working on the online version, not the one on your local disk. If you make more changes and save the file, it’s saved only online, not on your hard disk — and you won’t know it.

Making matters worse, you have no way of knowing whether you’re working on the file online or on your local disk. Similarly, if you open up an online document, then save a copy to your hard disk, all future changes will be made to the version on your hard disk, not to the version online. Because of this, it’s extremely easy to lose track of where you’re working and where the latest version of the file can be found.

That’s exactly what happened to me when writing this review. I saved the file, came back a day later, and thought that for some reason all my changes and additions had been lost. Only when I opened the file online did I realize what had happened.

There should be some indication that tells you which file you’re working on. Better yet, there should be an option that would automatically save the file both online and on your hard disk.

Other shortcomings

There’s another major shortcoming with working on files locally and online — there’s no way to synchronize files or folders. If you have a group of files or folders on your hard disk that you’d like to be synchronized with your files in Office Live Workspace, there’s simply no way to do it.

Also confusing is that some documents in Office Live Workspace can be edited online, without using Office. A project schedule, to-do list or contact list can be edited online, but Office documents such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint files can only be edited using the add-in and Microsoft Office. And if you create a contact list online, you can make those contacts available to you locally in Outlook, but you can’t make your Outlook contacts available in Office Live Workspace. Go figure.

Despite these problems, there are some nifty little extras on the site. You can comment on any document, for example, and others can read your comments. An add-on lets you share your screen with others. So, for example, if I were running a PowerPoint presentation, others could see that PowerPoint presentation on their screens.

Office Live Workspace requires Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 or Mac OS 10.2x or better. It works with Internet Explorer 6 or later and Firefox 2 or later. If you want to use it with Microsoft Office, you’ll need Microsoft Office XP, Office 2003 or Office 2007.

The bottom line

Office Live Workspace is a solid first attempt at an online collaboration tool for small businesses, family and friends, and workgroups. It’s exceedingly easy to build customized workspaces and for groups to collaborate on documents together. It’s cleanly designed, intelligently laid out and generally straightforward to use.

Although it’s an impressive first cut at a collaboration tool, it has plenty of rough edges. You can’t upload multiple documents. There’s no automatic synchronization between a local PC and online workspaces. And it’s exceedingly confusing to know whether you’re working on local or online files.

In addition, Microsoft has a good deal of work to do to clear up the considerable amount of confusion about its Live brand. What “Live” means is unclear, because under the same umbrella you’ll find client-based software such as the Windows Live OneCare suite, as well as a variety of Internet-based services such as Office Live Workspace. Worse still, there are multiple “Office Live” brands as well, including Microsoft Office Live Small Business, Microsoft Office Live Basics, Microsoft Office Live Essentials, Microsoft Office Live Premium and now Microsoft Office Live Workspace.

Still, anyone who wants to collaborate with others, or who wants access to important documents from any Internet-connected PC, will want to give the site a whirl. Given that it’s free — at least for now — there’s little reason not to try it out.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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