Microsoft Add Real-Time Collaboration to Office Web Application
Microsoft (news, site) has added real-time multi-user collaboration to the list of features in its Office Web applications, reducing the feature gap between its cloud-based productivity suite and competitor Google Docs.

Microsoft Adds Real-Time Collaboration

Last year, Microsoft introduced Office Web Apps in a response to competition from browser-based productivity tools such as the popular Google Docs. Although the initial release allowed collaboration for Excel and OneNote, it did not support simultaneous editing of Microsoft Word or PowerPoint files -- two of the most popular applications in the suite. Prior to the most recent enhancement, users who wanted real-time document collaborative document editing, like what has long been available in Google Docs, had to purchase the more feature-rich desktop version of the software.

According to Microsoft, the company designed the collaboration feature based on feedback from user community and observation of usage of the software. The new collaboration features does not require additional plug-ins or software. The new feature allows user to have a real-time view of which other users are making changes and where those changes are occurring.

Handling Simultaneous Editing

Those familiar with file sharing may be wondering how simultaneous editing is supported without creating a mess of overlapping changes. Microsoft has designed the software to lock the files by section as soon as a user begins typing, ensuring no changes are occurring to the same section, but allowing editing on other portions of the document. Once the document is locked, users connected  to the file are notified and the changes are published as soon as the file is saved and the lock is released and the contributor’s document is updated with others’ changes. If the user does not save, the changes are discarded and never shared.

Micrososft provides a number of visual indicators to inform users that changes have been introduced to a document that is being edited, such as the status bar is updated with a refresh message.

msCoAuthoringIndicator.png

Hovering above the lock indicator displays a similar message.

msCoAuthoringIndicator2.png

Potential users should be aware that collaborative editing requires users to save the files on SkyDrive, Microsoft’s service for sharing files. The storage restriction might be an issue for some organizations that prefer to store Office Web Apps using SharePoint Online.

Although Microsoft has added real-time collaboration, the company’s browser-based productivity suite still does match Google Docs in terms of other features, such as support for mobile editing. Office Web Apps only supports editing content on Windows mobile; users of iPhone or Android can only view content. Google Docs supports editing in a mobile browser.

Which cloud-based productivity suite do you prefer and why? We’d love to know.