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Can free Microsoft web apps replace Office 365?

Last week Microsoft sent reminders to people using the preview version of Office 365. At NZ$165 for an annual subscription covering five devices, the price is reasonable, but could you keep that money in the bank and get by with the free versions of Microsoft’s productivity suite?

There’s a simple answer and a long answer. The simple answer is: “It depends”. If you just jot notes with Word, crunch a few Excel numbers and are a casual PowerPoint user then the free apps could be enough.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that work through your browser. You need to be online to work with them and you have to store documents in Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service. I’ve found they work best in Internet Explorer, but Chrome and Firefox users won’t be disappointed. If you’re an Apple user, the Safari browser is also fine.

Office Web Apps are more polished than Google’s tools

I’ve used the apps on a desktop, laptop, tablet and on my smartphone. It’s not the full Microsoft Office experience, but there’s enough functionality for my work. In many respects the apps are like Google Documents – I find the Office Web Apps are more polished than Google’s tools.

Documents created with Office Web Apps will open in standard Microsoft Office applications – there’s no problem switching to and fro between the two suites.

In practice the Web Apps lack nothing I need. I use the web version of Excel to create tables used elsewhere on this site. I’ve used all the Web Apps on my iPad without any problems.

There are a few negatives. The web software isn’t as responsive as local applications and if you lose the web connection you’re in trouble. Sending Word documents as mail attachments can be tricky, but it is do-able.

Overall, Office Web Apps are worth considering if you don’t need the fancy features – sooner or later you may rub up against limitations. I’d say for many users, particularly casual users, Web Apps are good enough.