Microsoft is not known for its quick adoption of new trends, but when it does get on board, it often tries to make up lost time with gobs of money and hoards of experienced software engineers.
This strategy seems to be working with Office Online, a cloud-connected version of the world’s most popular productivity software that is free to use (with limitations) and offers a buffet of useful features. You’ll even find Office Online useful, if you already have a copy of Office installed on your computer.
Office Online Is Free
There’s always been one big, fat problem with Microsoft Office; the price. It’s expensive, and many users simply can’t afford it, even if they prefer it over a free solution like Google Docs or LibreOffice.
Office Online, however, is one of the few ways you can use Office entirely free of charge, forever, and without any specific limitations. Microsoft Office’s web apps are the same whether you pay or not, and free users even receive 15 gigabytes of cloud storage, which is far more than you’re likely to need, if you’re only using said storage for Word documents or PowerPoint presentations.
What’s the catch? Well, while Office Online is great, it isn’t a full-fledged version Microsoft Office. Just like web document editors from Google, Zoho and others, there are limitations on what you can accomplish. Word’s advanced formatting options are not present, Excel’s graph functionality is limited, and PowerPoint can’t be used to insert video.
What you can do, however, is create, edit and open Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. You may not want to use Office Online to craft a presentation for a Fortune 500 company, but it’ll work fine for banging out a resume or budgeting your finances.
Access Your Documents From Anywhere
One of the Office Online’s most obvious advantages is its cloud storage connectivity. Documents, spreadsheets and presentations edited used the online interface are automatically saved to OneDrive and can be opened from any computer. You can also save files to your local PC, but that is not the default behavior.
In short, it works like any other cloud productivity service. This is not an advantage relative to those, but it is an advantage to a huge number of Microsoft Office owners who might be reading this article. Office did not bundle OneDrive connectivity until the introduction of Microsoft Office 2013, so there’s a ton of users with older versions of Microsoft Office (for PC and for Mac) who lack this feature.
Sure, you could grab cloud connectivity by paying for an upgrade, but that’s not going to look attractive if you’re already satisfied with what your version of Office can handle. Office Online is free and instantly available, making it a perfect upgrade path for the budget-minded user.
Share & Collaborate on Documents in Real-Time
Office has included collaboration tools for many years, but it has been consistently behind the curve in the online collaboration, and important tool that many organizations love to use. This remains a problem in the desktop apps, but Office Online is a bit more welcoming.
Documents created in Office Online are easy to share with others because they’re automatically stored in OneDrive, which lets you share with other people with a Microsoft account or by generating and sending a link. Other users given editing permission can collaborate with you in real-time, and each user can see the others as they work.
For better or worse, this remains a trick you can only pull off with the online version. Even Office 365 subscribers can’t do the same from the desktop application, though they do have access to a broader range of offline collaboration options. You can add, edit and view comments in Office Online, but you can’t use Track Changes or add advanced markup to comments.
Easy Cross-Platform Compatibility
While the cloud connectivity of Office Online can be partially replicated by paying Office 365 owners, the desktop applications remain restricted to Windows and Mac.
Office Online, however, is available on anything that can run a web browser. There’s also free apps for Android and iOS phones, though for some reason iPad owners have to subscribe to Office 365 for this advantage. While not called Office Online, the app versions of Office 365 are basically that; they share the same restrictions and advantages.
This makes Office Online great for anyone who owns an Android tablet with a keyboard, a Linux PC or a Chromebook. Yes, you could use Google Documents and other services instead, but Office Online provides highly accurate Microsoft Office file format support, fifteen gigabytes of free storage and easy connectivity with Office 365, if you use it or plan to in the future.
Simplify Your Workflow
Google’s Chromebooks have proven that a simplified operating environment has value to users. Limited options mean less distraction, and saving items to the cloud eliminates the need to navigate folders or organize libraries. Fewer options result in a more efficient workflow, if the extras aren’t necessary.
Office Online provides this same advantage in a familiar interface. No, it is not as powerful as the full version, but it does enough to handle the document editing needs of many home and even professional users. And you already know where to find the menus and buttons you need.
The online version is also surprisingly fast; in fact, it sometimes feels quicker than the desktop application on old systems with limited RAM and a slow mechanical hard drive. And, since files are stored in the cloud, they don’t eat into your valuable hard drive space or become lost in a tangle of folders you really should have organized by now.
I speak of Office Online’s efficiency from experience. I own Office 2010 for my PC and Microsoft Office 2011 on my Mac, and use both regularly. Yet, I’ve found that the vast majority of my work is just as easily accomplished in Office Online – and, when I use it, I benefit from its cloud storage, which makes syncing between my PC and Mac dead-simple. Give the online tools a chance and you may find they completely change your workflow.
Should You Use Office Online?
Microsoft Office Online is not superior (or inferior) to Google Documents and doesn’t stand out as the best online platform, but it’s the obvious choice for users already hooked into Microsoft’s ecosystem. The interface is exactly like the desktop apps, missing features aside, so there’s no need to learn new tricks. Office Online is free, quick and instantly familiar, and for those reasons it’s worth a second look from any skeptical eyes that passed on its earlier incarnations.
Have you tried Office Online? Let us know what you though of it! And if you’ve tried other solutions, let us know about your experience with those, too!