Microsoft Plans to Get Serious About Office Web Apps

There's a free online Office that Microsoft wants you to know about.

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Microsoft has said that nearly 50 million people use Office Web Apps, but when I talk to non-techies they often don’t realize a free online version of Office even exists.

That may change soon, as Microsoft says it wants to get the word out about Office Web Apps while beefing it up with more features. TechCrunch’s Frederic Lardinois reports:

Microsoft’s corporate VP for the Office division John Case, it’s worth noting, told me that he believes the Office Web Apps haven’t quite received the recognition they deserve. He plans to change this by focusing more of the marketing on them and giving them more attention in general. “They have always been important companions to the client apps,” he told me,”but we are now starting to view them as standalone apps, too.” In the coming month, he promised, Microsoft will invest more heavily in the Web Apps.

Some new features are landing today. The online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint now allow users to collaborate on a single document in real-time. And if you’re working alone, the Word Web App now saves your document changes automatically. Other new features include a Find and Replace function in Word, drag-and-drop cells in Excel and picture cropping in PowerPoint. (Check out Ed Bott’s post at ZDNet for a deeper dive.)

One might argue that Microsoft used to enjoy Office Web Apps’ obscurity. Office software is the largest contributor to Microsoft’s earnings, pulling in billions of dollars in revenue every year. Office Web Apps are completely free; you just have to create a Microsoft account to use them. If people decide to rely on free Office Web Apps instead of the paid software, Microsoft risks hurting its cash cow.

But that risk already exists due to free document editors from Apple and Google. Buyers of Mac and iOS hardware now get free copies of Apple’s iWork suite, and Google is including its QuickOffice app in the next version of Android. Depending on your productivity needs, these apps could be good enough.

Microsoft also gives away copies of Office if you buy a small Windows tablet or a Windows RT device such as the Surface 2, and Windows Phones include a mobile version of Office for free. But at this point, iOS and Android have so much market share that Office still risks becoming irrelevant, at least for personal use.

With the Office giveaways on Windows tablets, Microsoft has shown that it’s willing to sacrifice potential sales in exchange for potentially loyal users. If you buy a Windows tablet, you’ll probably download some apps from the Windows Store and rely more on SkyDrive cloud storage. You might even subscribe to Office 365. Office is meant to be the gateway into Microsoft’s ecosystem.

Microsoft may see Office Web Apps as part of that strategy now. The apps are designed to work on the iPad, with support for Android tablets on the way. Free Office Web Apps could be the introduction to other Microsoft services, such as SkyDrive storage or Outlook e-mail. And maybe some of those iOS and Android users start to consider a Windows 8.1 device that blends all those services together. We all know the mantra at Microsoft these days.

Whether the strategy works out or not, it’s good to see Microsoft recommitting to Office Web Apps. They’re at least good enough not to be a well-kept secret anymore.