The battle for the hearts and pockets of productivity suite users has just intensified with the introduction of real time collaborative document editing for Office Web Apps. 

Office Web Apps are Microsoft’s browser-based, simplified versions of Office apps, consisting  of online versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Those products have not really gained the traction Microsoft was hoping for mainly because all the functionality they offered were already available in Google Docs.

Competition From Google

The problem for Microsoft is that no matter what it does in this space, Google generally has a response that is either considerably cheaper — or free.

Google Docs, for instance, is a freeware web-based office suite offered by Google within its Google Drive service. In the case of real time editing, the functionality Microsoft is announcing today has been available in Google Docs for more than two years. At this point, most home users may find the Google options adequate.

To compete with that perception and to ensure that Google doesn’t completely erode its market, Microsoft has been building out Web Apps at a terrific pace. The company is being forced to add functionality as Google pushes its Quickoffice suite onto Android in the latest KitKat release. Apple may also offer full productivity functionality across its desktops and mobile devices.

The Lure of Free Web Apps

One of the big things Web Apps couldn’t offer until now was real time editing, which in the current, mobile world is increasingly important. With this upgrade, Microsoft is responding to some of the changes that are happening with other big productivity vendors, as well as underlining its commitment to Web Apps.

Microsoft Web Apps collaborative editing.jpg

Microsoft Web Apps collaborative editing

The announcement appeared on a Microsoft blog post this morning by Amanda Lefebvre, technical product marketing manager for Office Web Apps:

Office Web Apps are the best free alternative to Office. They are online versions of the core Office applications and extend the Office experience you know and love with anytime, anywhere online editing and collaboration on Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote files.” 

Whether established Google users will be convinced that Web Apps beats what they already have remains to be seen. But with this new functionality, they will at least have to think about it.

Web Apps Co-Authoring

According to the blog post, users will be able to co-author documents simultaneously in Word Web App, PowerPoint Web App or Excel Web App. Real time presence shows what other users are working in a document as well as alerting users to change that have been made by other users.

What’s even better for users is that they will be able to use this functionality on any device because it is accessible through the Web, which will be a real draw for mobile users:

Whether working from the web, desktop, a Windows tablet or iPad, a mobile device, offline or online, Office provides you the tools to work together in ways that fit your needs.

Like other collaboration tools, it comes with powerful synching so users can work offline on a document, changes to which will be synched as soon as that user goes online.

Collaboration, though, is not the only addition this time around. New upgrades in Word, for example, include better formatting functionality as well as the ability to find and replace words, add style and formatting to tables and the ability to insert footers and headers. There are also formatting upgrades for Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft Web Apps PowerPoint.jpg

Web Apps In The Future

Microsoft is promising a lot more in the coming months, including more Office functionality for Web Apps. The new features will be made available in the next few days and will be available to anyone who signs in at Office.com with a free Microsoft account or a paid Office 365 account.

While Office Web Apps don't have all the applications the paid Office suite provides, notably SharePoint Online or the messaging service, Lync, it does provide powerful functionality that will, for casual users, place a question mark over whether they should shell out the monthly $10 fee for Office 365 in the US — or more than $13 per user per month in the Eurozone.

However, Microsoft is clearly more concerned about competition from Google than it is by people who opt for the free version rather than the paid version of Office. With the development of Web Apps, it is offering browser-based and function rich, free apps to counter Google's offerings.