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Microsoft Office Web Apps Server (OWA Server) together with SharePoint Server 2013 brings a modern user-friendly interface for Office document collaboration that will save your users’ time and the company money.

OWA Server is a new server product released alongside the Office 2103 suite that brings browser-based Office document viewing as well as editing capabilities and integration to SharePoint 2013, Exchange 2013, Lync 2013, shared folders and websites. What was previously a bolt-on application for SharePoint 2010 is now a stand-alone server product whose services can be centrally consumed by multiple instances of the Server products listed above. You may have already seen the functionality provided by OWA Server since it is enabled in Office 365 and SkyDrive.

You can expect some great improvements with the latest version that will make your internal and external users happy and more efficient while creating, editing and collaborating on Office documents in SharePoint. Some of these improvements include cross platform browser support, better feature fidelity and a familiar user interface to that of the Office client applications, integrated sharing and co-authoring, document previews within search results and libraries, and more. Along with the improved interface and features licensing, OWA for external users is now more budget friendly in terms of licensing requirements.

OWA Integration with SharePoint 2013

Once an OWA farm has been set up and SharePoint 2013 has been configured to consume its services, you will notice a few key integration points, namely in document libraries and search results. When you click on “new document” in a document library, four choices for document type will pop up.


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Figure 1: Creating a new Office Document in the browser with the features enabled by Office Wev Apps Server.

Here we see that the user can select the desired type of office document to create in the browser. The selection will then open the associated Web App (Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote).

Another time saving integration point is Document Preview in Search Results. Document Preview allows the user to view and read an entire Word document right next to the search results. For PowerPoint files the user can now flip through every slide as well as view animations and transitions. This is the first time an OWA feature has allowed this.

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Figure 2: Viewing an entire PowerPoint presentation without downloading the file or navigating to a different page.

Along with the new, time-saving ability to view entire office documents from within search results (and document libraries) another new feature within the preview is the ability to download the file, print the file to PDF and embed the file elsewhere.

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Figure 3: Useful features have been added to the document preview pane which saves mouse clucks and office load times.

By clicking SEND, OWA will generate a link in an email so that you can quickly send another user a link to this document. Clicking the maximize button opens the Web App in full screen and allows editing if you have permissions and are accessing this from a supported device. (We will cover what devices are supported later in the article.)

Interestingly enough, you can follow a document directly from this pane as well. Following is a new feature of SharePoint 2013 that allows you to easily track changes sites/documents/projects through a Facebook-like newsfeed in your My Site.

Document Previewing is now available in document libraries too. This feature will certainly save your users’ time by not having to manually open each document. Just click the ellipses next to a document you’d like to preview and the preview pane will open.

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Figure 4: OWA provides Office document previewing directly in document libraries as well as search results. 

These integration points of OWA and SharePoint 2013 will reduce the time and productivity users typically waste searching for the information they need. Along with the ability to preview office documents, each Office Web App has been updated and provides a subset of the Office client application feature set allowing the user to create, edit, view, and collaborate on Office documents.

Word Web App

The Word Web App provides SharePoint 2013 users the ability to create, edit and view Microsoft Word documents in the browser. Teams of users can also edit the document at the same time which is called co-authoring.

When creating a new Word document from a document library, a dialog will pop up allowing the user to name the new file.

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Figure 5: Naming a new word document created in a SharePoint document library by OWA.

Once the file is created, Word Web App will launch and allow you (and other users) to edit the document.

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Figure 6: The Word Web App Interface including different styles you would find in the Word Client. 

The user has access to the common formatting and styling feature of Microsoft Word and can begin authoring the document. While a user has the document open in Word Web app, another user can open it as well and add changes. The bottom right panel displays the number and names of the users currently editing the document.

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Figure 7: Multiple users editing a document in Word Web App

As the users are making changes, the edited paragraph is locked by that user. In order to make your changes visible to the other users click the save button.

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Figure 8: The highlighting shows that the paragraph is being edited by another user

Other notable improvements include better layout tools (page size, orientation, margins, paragraph spacing and indentation), the incorporation of word count calculations, the new ability to print to PDF, and the ability to embed the document on a SharePoint page.

Excel Web App

The Excel Web App provides users with the ability to create and co-author Excel workbooks in the web browser. Below is the interface you are greeted with after creating a new Excel Workbook.

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Figure 9: The Ribbon Interface after creating a new excel workbook with OWA Server. 

The coauthoring abilities in Excel Web App mimic those in Word Web App except that you don’t have to save the workbook for the other users to see each other’s changes. Changes to the workbook are saved automatically.

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Figure 10: A message in the Excel Web App file menu describes how the document is automatically saved

Other improvements to this version of Excel Web App include the ability to edit Pivot tables in the browser. The Excel team at Microsoft is constantly adding features found in the client to the web version and is seeking feedback. You can read more about upcoming feature releases and submit a request here. To see a side-by-side feature comparison between Excel Web App and the Excel 2013 Client go here.

PowerPoint Web App

The PowerPoint broadcast feature found in SharePoint Server 2010 has been removed from SharePoint 2013 because this functionality has been incorporated into Lync Server 2013. As previously discussed, users can still flip through presentations in the document preview pane. The major PowerPoint Web App updates include support for animations and slide transitions, shape insertion and editing functionality, and the ability to change themes. Below is the default screen after creating a new PowerPoint presentation through OWA Server.

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Figure 11: The interface when initially creating a PowerPoint Presentation with PowerPoint Web App

Co-authoring presentations in PowerPoint Web App isn’t as straightforward as the other Office Web Apps. Two users can work on the presentation, but have to manually refresh the page to see each other’s changes.

Another change related to PowerPoint and SharePoint 2013 is the removal of slide libraries. However, slides can still be inserted from other PowerPoint presentations with PowerPoint Web App.

One Note Web App

The OneNote Web App is mostly the same as its predecessor. A new “Find” text box has been added to support searching within the notebook. This is the interface of OneNote Web App.

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OWA Server Supports More Devices and Browsers

One of the main goals of this wave of product releases is to provide better support for mobile devices including tablets such as iPads and the Microsoft Surface as well as mainstream web browsers.
The table below indicates what types of devices and browsers support viewing and editing Office documents in OWA Server.


With the increased support for these devices and browsers, SharePoint users can access and work on Office documents from almost anywhere.

Licensing Office Web Apps Server

With so many use case scenarios for SharePoint 2013 and its integration points with Office Web Apps Server, proper licensing can be difficult to understand considering the different types of users accessing the environment. In order to achieve licensing compliance, you must make sure that all of the users of the Office Web Apps services (and SharePoint) are covered.

The licensing model around Office Web Apps that ran on SharePoint 2010 was not designed for external users. A Microsoft Office license was required for each internal or external user in order to use Office Web Apps, and with large numbers of extranet or anonymous users, this could easily overwhelm the SharePoint budget. This new licensing model with Office Web Apps Server now supports these extranet and internet scenarios.

Below is a list of the types of OWA users, their use case for Office Web Apps, and how they are licensed:

  • Viewing Only -- Everyone can view office documents served up by Office Web Apps Server without a separate license.
  • Viewing and Editing Private Content Internal Users -- In order to enable editing for your users, you must be a Volume License customer (for example: Office Standard 2013 or Office Pro Plus 2013, Office 365 Pro Plus) and have a primary user license on each device.
  • Viewing and Editing Public Content Internal Users -- You must be a Volume License customer and any publicly available content can be viewed and edited.
  • Viewing and Editing Public Content External Users -- You must be a Volume License customer and any publicly available content can be viewed and edited.

The OWA Wrap Up

The latest version of OWA has a lot of moving pieces.

We covered a high level overview of the new Microsoft Office Web Apps Server product including each component, its improvements, and changes to licensing. Hopefully this information can be utilized when you’re analyzing the impact of SharePoint 2013 with OWA Server on your business and can also help inform your decision to upgrade.

Thanks for reading and please leave any questions in the comments below.

Editor's Note: Read more opinions on the changing face of SharePoint.