Office Starter vs. Office Web Apps… fight!

“Everything old is new again”, or so the old saying goes. The current buzzword in IT is “The Cloud”, which, at its most basic, means “storing data on a server instead of a desktop PC”. In many ways, this is an idea as old as computing itself, and isn’t all that exciting.

However, today’s “New Cloud” is much more than that. It’s not just about storing data on a server, it’s about presenting that data, too. Companies want to write desktop applications that can access cloud data, but they also want to create webapps for remote users that look and feel like traditional desktop apps. They also want to create smartphone apps that allow executives and traveling salespeople to manipulate cloud data in a format that fits their phones.

Most analysts predict a war in the very near future… a war between traditional software companies (like Microsoft and Adobe) who have made billions off desktop applications, and between upstarts (like, well, Google) that will offer similar applications over the Internet. To give just one example, Google is hoping to vanquish both Microsoft Office and competitors like the open-source OpenOffice and IBM’s Lotus Symphony with Google Docs. Results, so far, are mixed.

But Microsoft isn’t going to just lie there and take it like a roofied-up sorority pledge. The company has created its own online suite – Office Web Apps – which includes capable versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. As webapps, they’re available to anyone with a web browser and an Internet connection. And, as of this moment, they’re free.

The company also got smart and finally killed Microsoft Works, its much-maligned “home office” suite. Works wasn’t just a “lite” version of Microsoft Office: most versions of Works used their own file format, meaning that a person using the Works spreadsheet app at home couldn’t open that file with Excel at the office, or vice-versa. But Works was cheap, and OEMs like Dell and HP included it on home PCs for years. Microsoft, to its credit, came out with Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition. This includes stripped-down versions of Word and Excel only. It’s not trial software, however users can buy a key card from a “major electronic retail outlet” (or buy a key online) to convert Starter to Office Home & Student 2010, Office Home & Business 2010, or Office Professional 2010. What’s more, users can copy Office Starter to a USB key and use it on as many PCs as they wish, which is kind of cool.

So… which one’s better? Let’s get ready to rumble!

Well, Office Starter has one major annoyance right off the bat:

Office Starter 2010
(click to embiggen)

You see that pane on the right side of the window, the one that contains an ad for Microsoft Office? Yeah, that can’t be closed or minimized. This isn’t a so much of a problem when using Office Starter on a desktop with a 22″ monitor or a laptop with a 17″ screen. But the above screencap is from my netbook, and is maximized to the full resolution of 1024×600. Contrast this with the Office Web Apps UI:

Office Web
(click to embiggen)

This is a screencap from the same netbook, running Office Web Apps on Firefox 3.6.13 at full-screen. I guess it’s obvious that, if screen size is an issue, Office Web Apps wins hands-down. I should be somewhat fair to Microsoft and mention that the ads in Office Starter are from Microsoft only (no third-parties… yet), and the company swears up and down that the apps don’t “spy” on you for contextual ad clues. Note also that both Starter and Web Apps use the “ribbon” interface introduced in Office 2007. If you didn’t like it then, you won’t like it now.

So… it’s obvious that Starter lacks a PowerPoint editor (it includes PowerPoint Viewer 2010) and OneNote. What else does it lack? For starters, any support for macros. While you might expect the cloud version of Office to lack this ability, it’s somewhat surprising that it was not included in Office Starter.

Also missing in Office Starter? Customizable toolbars, SmartArt, full screen reading, reference features (the ability to add citations, footnotes, endnotes, cross-references and\or a bibliography), bookmarks, tables of contents and indexes, version tracking, AutoText, add-ins of any kind, language packs, saving to SharePoint, sending via fax, equation editing (Word), PivotTables and PivotCharts (Excel), Slicers (Excel), any connection to third-party data sources (Excel), modifications to column and row headings (Excel), error checking, calculation steps and circular references (Excel) and the ability to toggle row groupings, panes and workbook windows (Excel). So, basically, Office Starter is good for writing résumés and high-school book reports, but extremely limited for collegiate and professional uses. This is to be expected in a way… Microsoft wants you to upgrade to a full version of Office. And while it might seem like Office Starter has a gigantic list of missing features, most of these will only be used in more professional settings.

Office Web Apps seems positively full-featured in comparison, although it shares a few of the same limitations as Office Starter. You cannot, for instance, create an Excel chart in Office Web Apps (you can, however, view a chart in the webapp). Office Web Apps also seems to lack many little features, like converting an en dash to an em dash, or converting basic quotation marks to the fancy ones that Office desktop does. In this, Microsoft appears to be safe from Google, as Google Docs share many of the same quirks.

Office Web Apps does have one killer feature though… integration with desktop versions of Office 2010. Your documents are stored on Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud, and you can login to SkyDrive, find the document you want, then click “Open in Word” (or Excel or PowerPoint) and the document will open in the desktop version of the app. You can also save files directly to SkyDrive from within Office, and open it via the “Recent Documents” in standard Office apps. Compare this to Google Docs, which requires you to download the file, edit it in your editor of choice, then manually upload it again. You can see why Office Web Apps is so cool!

So – which one will I use? Well, if I have an Internet connection, Office Web Apps wins, hands down. You have more available screen real estate, and the integration features are top-notch. Still, if I want to make a basic document look more professional (or am somewhere without Wi-Fi) then Office Starter works too. But only in a pinch.

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