Microsoft links Office to Web with Live Workspace

Free doc-sharing and collaboration service to debut in beta this year

Microsoft announced this week a free online storage, file sharing and collaboration service designed for users of its Office application suite, its latest move to tie desktop software to the Internet.

Unlike rivals such as Google and Adobe, which have moved on the lucrative Office software market with Web-based applications, Microsoft will take a more conservative approach with the new Office Live Workspace. "The biggest pain point users told us about was not having access to files wherever they were," said Eric Gilmore, senior product manager for Microsoft Office. "When you said to them, 'Gimme a time when you don't have Office,' that wound up to be a very small minority, an exception."

So rather than worry about delivering applications over the Internet, Office Live Workspace will shoot for a different goal when it shifts into beta sometime before the end of the year. "We wanted to make it really easy to share documents or collaborative workspaces," said Gilmore.

Office Live Workspace can't be used to create documents, but instead will be linked to desktop software through a Save As command in Office's Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications. "The service will be optimized for all Office users," said Gilmore, from Office 97 through Office 2007 on Windows as well as the Mac OS X editions of the suite.

"It starts with document creation," said Gilmore. In Office 2007, for example, a Save to Office Live icon saves the document, whether an existing one or one just created, to a user's personal workspace, or any shared workspace to which a user has rights. Online, meanwhile, a click on a workspace document previews it in the browser -- Internet Explorer (IE) 6.x and later, and Firefox 2.x or later are supported -- while another downloads the file directly into the appropriate Office application on the PC or Mac.

Also planned for the beta, said Gilmore, are collaboration tools that let users share workspace documents in real time. Based on Microsoft's Shared View technology -- which was code-named "Tahiti" until mid-May -- the one-click sharing will attribute changes to the appropriate user, even when the document is "owned" by another. Shared View, now in beta testing, will launch with the preview of Office Live Workspace, which Gilmore said would be available "before the end of the year." Other collaboration features include the ability to preview documents inside IE or Firefox, as well as in-browser commenting.

While Office Live Workspace will be integrated with Microsoft's own Office software, Gilmore said it would not require it. The service will be available to all comers. "This isn't restricted to just Office users," said Gilmore. "It's not tied to having Office." People working with competing suites, however, including the open-source OpenOffice.org, can use Workspace, but they'll see an experience much more like when they access a traditional online storage service, said Gilmore; they will have to manually upload files to a workspace from the browser.

Other touches won't be present in rival software. OpenOffice.org users, for example, will not see an integrated "Save As" command for saving Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents to the online space. Nor can ODF (Open Document Format) files, OpenOffice.org's default, be previewed, since the only file formats Microsoft will support for in-browser viewing will be its Office formats and Adobe's PDF.

The service will be free during beta testing, and while Gilmore said Microsoft is looking at "all different kinds of business models" for Workspace -- including advertising supported and/or a fee-based system for larger workspace storage allotments -- the company is committed to retaining some sort of free service.

Users can pre-register for Office Live Workspace starting Monday on the Microsoft Web site.

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Gregg Keizer

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