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Office Live Workspace: Shadowed by Google Docs?

Microsoft last Wednesday touted the success of its online extension to Microsoft Office, a free browser-based application that's still in beta release. One million people so far have signed up to use the Microsoft Office Live Workspace Beta after six months of the beta's public availability, according to an announcement issued by the company.

While the 1 million figure seems impressive, it's still just one tenth of the number of total Google Apps users, although some would contend that such a comparison is unfair.

The key word is to understanding Microsoft's application, an adjunct to the company's Office suite, is "Workspace." The application isn't an online version with Excel, PowerPoint and Word. Instead, Microsoft Office Live Workspace provides a place to store documents over the Internet cloud, allowing others to access them via a Web browser. It specifically works via Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox browsers.

Microsoft's Software Plus Services Approach
Microsoft Office Live Workspace solution conceptually fits within Microsoft's overall "software plus services" approach, which envisions a world of installed software applications plus access to hosted applications via a Web browser or custom client app.

While many might consider Google Docs to be a competitor to Microsoft Office Live Workspace, Microsoft observer Paul Thurrott made a distinction in his blog, saying that "Office Live Workspace is not a Google Docs competitor at all."

The main reason the apps don't compete, Thurrott contends, is Microsoft's software plus services approach. That approach varies from Google's practice of hosting all of its applications entirely over the Internet.

The chief benefit of Microsoft Office Live Workspace is the ability to access files from home and work, as well as to collaborate with others on documents. The solution lets people save various file formats. It supports Excel, PowerPoint and Word file formats in the Microsoft Office suite, as well as PDFs and various image-file formats. Online security is enabled via Microsoft Forefront for SharePoint.

Once files are uploaded, users can edit them in Microsoft Office Live Workspace. However, the editing actually takes place with the user's installed desktop copy of Microsoft Office, not with an online app. For example, clicking a Word edit icon in Microsoft Office Live Workspace opens up the installed desktop version of Microsoft Word to begin the editing process.

Users can also work on the Microsoft Office desktop and save to the cloud as well. Microsoft Office Live Workspace preserves file versioning and synchronizes with files saved on a desktop computer. However, to enable that capability, users first have to download and install Office Live Update, currently at Version 1.2. The update adds Microsoft Office Live Workspace buttons and toolbars to Microsoft Office.

Unless you are using Microsoft Office, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to use Microsoft Office Live Workspace. Instead, for those who want Office-like applications for free or on the cheap, there are some hosted and desktop-based alternatives. One of the purely cloud-based ones is Google Docs, which provides applications that are accessed entirely in the Internet cloud.

Google's Cloud-Based Apps
Google Docs includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications accessed through a Web browser. It currently works with some older Microsoft Office document file formats, such as .xls (Excel), .doc (Word) and .ppt (PowerPoint).

Google Doc applications are far thinner than comparable ones in the Microsoft Office suite. Google tends to get criticism for that, with some suggesting that Google has less at stake than Microsoft in serving business needs.

Google Docs is part of the Google Apps suite, which also includes e-mail, calendar, collaboration tools and security components. Google Apps is offered for free or for $50 per user per year in its Premier Edition, which adds security and archiving options for organizations. Security for hosted e-mail in the Premier Edition is supported though technology that Google acquired about a year ago when it bought a company called Postini.

It's been about 18 months since the Premier Edition of Google Apps was launched, according to Andrew Kovacs, communications manager for Google Apps.

"We now have hundreds of thousands of paid users on Google Apps Premier Edition," Kovacs said. "Including all editions of Google Apps, we have more than 10 million active users using Google Apps and there are more than 500,000 business users on Google Apps, and those 500,000 businesses would include those both on the Standard and Premier paid versions."

Kovacs would not say what sort of revenues Google Apps was bringing in for the company, although he commented that "Google Apps is a profitable business for us" and "we are currently seeing more than 3,000 businesses signing up every day."

It's typically larger organizations that opt for the Google Apps Premier Edition, Kovacs said, as it offers customization, support, e-mail security and greater storage capacity.

"For Premier Edition, we offer extensibility APIs, which allows them to better integrate the Google Apps suite within existing technologies within their company. Many appreciate the greater support for compliance issues that we deliver through Postini. Others want the 24 by 7 phone support that we provide with Premier Edition. Others want the larger mailbox -- it's a 25-Gig mailbox instead of a 7-Gig mailbox."

In addition, Google Apps added video sharing capabilities for businesses just this month.

"Even at $50 per user per year, it's going to be dramatically more affordable than alternate on-premise offerings," Kovacs said, adding, "I've seen research that suggests a 10 times cost savings, and that's just on the messaging side."

The case for adoption of Google Apps is its real-time collaboration and ubiquitous access capabilities, Kovacs said.

In contrast to Microsoft's software plus services approach, Google is "really focused on innovating on the Internet," Kovacs said. He suggested that cloud-based apps are gaining strength compared with installed alternatives.

"It used to be fairly said that Web applications were sort of lightweight versions of traditional desktop applications, but that's no longer true just in the last year," Kovacs said. "Now, there are actually many things you can do with Web apps that you can't do with traditional desktop applications."

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