Microsoft Office Live Workspace

With this beta of Microsoft Office Live Workspace, the Redmond giant takes a reasonably graceful leap onto the fast-moving bandwagon of free online sharing and collaboration sites. Office Live Workspace is a personal-size version of the well-established (and PC Magazine Editors’ Choice) Office Live Small Business service, with business-oriented features removed, leaving only ones for document sharing, simple discussions, and shared calendars and contacts. I found Office Live Workspace to be elegant, efficient, but not yet bug-free enough for me to trust my data to it. When the bugs get worked out (we hope by the time the beta tag is removed), the good news will be that it’s tightly integrated with the copy of Microsoft Office on your desktop. You can simply click on an Edit button in Office Live and edit a document in Word or Excel. The bad news is that you can’t edit your online documents if you access them from a public or borrowed computer that doesn’t have Microsoft Office installed, which gets in the way of the service’s flexibility as an online collaboration tool.

I like the clean, ad-free interface on Office Live Workspace, though I wish it didn’t insist on using sickly orange banners and highlights that seem to have been chosen by the same ugly-color specialist who chose the sickly green default color in Vista. I like the big, easy-to-find controls that Microsoft provides for viewing and sharing Microsoft Office documents, exchanging comments, and managing contacts and calendars. A downloadable Office Live Connector adds “Open from Office Live” and “Send to Office Live” menu items to the main file menu in Office applications. A “Connect to Outlook” button in any Office Live contacts list or calendar let me open the Office Live contact list or calendar inside Outlook. At this point, Microsoft tells me, an autosynchronization is supposed to occur between Outlook’s contacts, calendar, and tasks, but the autosync didn’t happen when I tried it, so I had to copy and paste between the lists in Office and the ones in Outlook.[[03/06/08—Editors’ Note: Originally we reported that the interface doesn’t let you sync the desktop and online lists.]] Possibly this was a one-time glitch that won’t affect anyone else.

I understand that Microsoft gets most of its revenue from sales of Office, but, as I’m not a Microsoft stockholder, that doesn’t make me like the fact that Office Live Workspace lets me edit an online document only when there’s a copy of Office installed on the computer from which I access the service. For me, an absolutely essential feature of an online document-sharing service is the ability to edit documents online, even if I’m using a public computer in an airport or a friend’s Macintosh. Office Live lets me view online documents, but if I want to correct a spelling error while I’m using a machine that doesn’t have Office, I’m out of luck. This means that Office Live won’t tempt me away from Google Docs, but if you’re certain that you’ll never, ever need to edit a document on Office Live Workspace from a computer without Office installed, then Office Live Workspace may be exactly what you need.

What makes this problem worse is that Office Live Workspace doesn’t even display some of Microsoft’s own sample documents correctly, so unless you can open them in a copy of Word, you can’t even see what’s in your document. I noticed this problem in the party invitation template, which displayed only the background image in the online preview version, but not the text that appears only when the invitation opens in my desktop-based copy of Word. Presumably, Microsoft will someday fix this problem, but prepare to get bitten by it if you jump in now. Other intermittent problems I encountered included error messages saying that Office Live Workspace couldn’t convert the new version of a file that I had just uploaded into a Web-viewable format. The document turned out to be downloadable and usable even though the service couldn’t display it, but the error was unsettling.

Furthermore, when I uploaded some Excel spreadsheets, Office Live didn’t change the underlying documents, but the read-only online previews that it displayed were sadly reduced versions of the original. No charts were visible; instead of tabs, all the sheets were laid out on a single page, one above the other; I couldn’t drag cell borders to make the preview more visible. For any complicated spreadsheet, the preview was simply unusable. Fortunately, despite these display problems, any document that you upload to Office Live works exactly as it should when you edit it in Excel or Word or PowerPoint.

Like Google Docs and other online sharing services, Microsoft Office Live lets you share documents by sending e-mails with a password-protected link to friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, everyone you invite will need a Windows Live ID to view or edit a document, so be prepared to get angry e-mails from friends who don’t want to endure Microsoft’s sign-up procedure in order to read your latest collection of unfunny jokes. (A Windows Live ID can be associated with any existing e-mail address, but you have to go through a sign-up procedure to make it work.) You won’t have this problem with other free services like Google Docs.

Another minor annoyance is the bait-and-switch help system in Office Live Workspace. Helpful-looking links told me to “click here” for further information on specific features—but when I clicked, I was taken only to the main menu of the Office Live Workspace help system, with no clue about where to go for the information I actually wanted.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace is certainly worth looking at, since it doesn’t cost you anything, and probably worth using if you remember its limitations: that you can’t edit documents from a public computer that doesn’t have Office installed, and that you can share files only with friends and colleagues who have Windows Live accounts. Those limitations will keep me using Google Docs for files I want to store online and share with others.

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