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Microsoft Sprucing Up Office Web Apps for Tablets

Microsoft recently gave a demo of upcoming changes to Office Web Apps that will improve the user experience on Windows, iOS and Android tablets.

The demo, which was posted on Wednesday, took place at Microsoft's TechEd event in New Orleans in early June. It's unclear what browser and operating system were used for the demo, but a Microsoft spokesperson said via e-mail that it likely was some version of Internet Explorer running on Windows 8. In any case, Microsoft is promising a consistent user experience across different browsers, and different OSes, with Office Web Apps. The improvements are arriving partly due to improved browser technologies, Microsoft officials said.

Microsoft has improved its "coauthoring" collaboration feature in Office Web Apps, which was highlighted in the demo. Coauthoring lets users work on a document simultaneously from different locations and they can see the changes being made in near real time.

Real-time coauthoring "means you can see what others are doing in the document," according to Amanda Lefebvre, technical product marketing manager for Office Web Apps, in the demo. While Microsoft has had coauthoring available in some form since Office 2010, it's been slowly progressing. Lefebvre would only say that the Office Web App improvements that were demonstrated would be "available over the next several months." It will be a step forward, since seeing coauthoring changes used to require a browser refresh.

Other features being added to Office Web Apps include "find and replace," "headers and footers," and "show comments." Microsoft is adding tables with formatting, in which changes can be seen during coauthoring sessions. Excel's autofill, autocomplete and data validation features are being added. PowerPoint will provide thumbnails of slides that can be seen in coauthoring sessions, and participants can even add their own slides. The SmartArt feature in PowerPoint also works with coauthoring capabilities.

Windows 8 and iPad tablets currently have editing capabilities using Office Web Apps. Microsoft also plans to support the Google Chrome browser on tablets running the Android operating system "over the next year and beyond," which was announced last month. For PCs, Office Web Apps are supported by Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome; on Macs, there's support using the Safari browser.

Overall browser support for Office Web Apps on various devices is illustrated by Microsoft in this TechNet article.

Microsoft's new Office Web Apps improvements, in general, are being pushed more on the tablet side, than for smartphones, according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

"For devices, our current priority is to bring editing to tablets," the spokesperson said, via e-mail. "For smartphones, the priority is to provide reliable viewing."

Smartphones typically use Microsoft's Office Mobile Viewers technology for a mobile version of Office Web Apps that works on Android, iPhone and Windows Phone devices. That's currently the situation for the Excel, PowerPoint and Word mobile Office Web Apps. OneNote is an exception. Microsoft currently doesn't use Mobile Viewer technology with OneNote for smartphones and recommends installing its "OneNote app" for Android smartphones and iPhones, instead. This OneNote mobile app is also bundled with Windows Phone 7 and later Windows Phone OS versions.

Office Web Apps that run in browsers currently don't have offline editing support. Users need Microsoft Office for that.

"Office Web Apps have a great offline experience in the Office desktop applications," the spokesperson explained. "[There are] no details to share about changes to that approach."

Office Web Apps are free for consumers with a SkyDrive account. Organizations, on the other hand, pay to use Office Web Apps either through Office 365 service plans or through SharePoint 2010, SharePoint 2013 or Office 2013 server licensing.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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