It's no secret that Microsoft plans to offer free web-based versions of its Office suite alongside next year's launch of Office 2010, but details have so far been few and far between.
Hoping to shed a little light on its long-awaited competitor to Google Docs, Microsoft has today announced a technical preview of its Office Web Apps for select customers. The invite-only preview (register for an invitation here), allows select Windows Live users to trial online versions of Excel, Word and PowerPoint from within Windows Live SkyDrive - Microsoft's free web-based storage solution.
Microsoft has been keen to highlight that the technical preview is "by no means feature complete", but adds that "it does show off the exciting potential of having online versions of Excel, Word, and PowerPoint, and how you can easily access and work with your Office documents from anywhere with an Internet connection".
At this early stage, Excel remains the only Office Web App providing support for simultaneous co-authoring. Furthermore, whilst the Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps allow for users to create and edit documents, the Word Web App currently offers little more than read-only functionality.
Microsoft states that its goal for this initial release has been "to provide lightweight editing functionality and a high-fidelity viewing experience". And, to its credit, the early preview demonstrates that the Office Web Apps can display documents and application UIs in a manner resembling their desktop counterparts.
Importantly for consumers, Office Web Apps is compatible with a variety of browsers - including Internet Explorer 7.0 or above, Firefox 3.5 or above, Google Chrome and Safari 4. There's no sign of support for Opera, however.
Office Web Apps is expected to feature as part of a broad public beta later this year, ahead of a final launch alongside Office 2010. The web-based solution will be freely available and does not require Office 2010. Want to see more? Here's a demonstration video provided by Office Product Manager Michael Schultz: