Microsoft dubs 'confusing' Office Web Apps as Office Online

Puts the rebranded browser-based productivity apps front and center on Office.com

Microsoft today rebranded its browser-based Office Web Apps, stripped-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, as Office Online.

The change had leaked last month when a Chinese website uncovered several pages on Microsoft's website that referenced the new name. Internet domain records also showed that the new brand's online namesake, officeonline.com, had been acquired by Microsoft.

Microsoft acknowledged today that the now-discarded name had been confusing to customers and that the apps had been difficult to find.

"We heard from customers that the inclusion of Apps in our name was confusing," wrote Amanda Lefebvre, a senior product marketing manager with Microsoft, in a Thursday post. "Are they something I install? Do I go to an app store to get them?"

The answer to both had been: No.

Microsoft has placed an opening page on its Office website where users can launch the apps, which have been individually renamed from, for example, "Word Web App," to "Word Online." The URL officeonline.com redirects to the new start page of office.com.

Microsoft debuted Office Web Apps in mid-2010 after nearly two years of testing, including one year of public beta testing.

The new Office Online apps received some enhancements, including a large library of ready-to-use templates and an app switcher that displays at the top of every app for calling up another. Users who also own Office 2010 or Office 2013, the traditional desktop-installed suites, can click on a button to open the current online app document in the pertinent desktop application.

Mac users of Office, including the current Office for Mac 2011, are out of luck there: They cannot open a Word Online document in their version of Word, for instance.

Microsoft added real-time co-editing to Office Online, nee Office Web Apps, last November.

The Office Online apps are free to use; a Microsoft account is required.

The apps are also a component of most Office 365 subscription plans, the rent-not-own model that Microsoft has been pushing for more than a year to consumers, longer than that to businesses. For the latter, the apps are linked to SharePoint, the Redmond, Wash. company's collaboration platform and central hub for storing, accessing and sharing documents.

Microsoft's move to put the Office Online apps front and center is a departure from past practice, when the company did little to promote them or even recognize their existence. Just finding them -- they were accessible only from SkyDrive, the online storage service that Microsoft renamed OneDrive yesterday -- was hard, as Lefebvre admitted.

"A lot of you don't know that we have an online version of Office because you just couldn't find it," she wrote today.

Clearly, one reason for the online apps has been to defend against customer defections to Google Apps for Business, the $50 per user per year service that includes Google Docs. Microsoft currently counters Google Apps for Business with a pair of Office 365 plans built around Office Online: One, aimed at small businesses with 25 or fewer employees, is priced at $5 per user per month ($60 annually); the second, targeting larger firms, runs $8 per user per month ($96 a year).

But on the consumer and very-small-business fronts, Microsoft risks cannibalization of its Office desktop suite by pushing Office Online, analysts have said. Hiding the apps may have been one way to reduce that cannibalization.

Putting them in a prominent place -- Microsoft's office.com domain is a large, sprawling and popular landing page -- increases that risk, that casual users will see the features of Office Online as sufficient, as "good enough" for their needs.

"Longer term, Microsoft has to worry about cannibalization," said Michael Silver, a Gartner analyst, in a November 2013 interview. "But the revenue involved [in consumer sales] isn't significant."

Microsoft has pledged to bring Android within the Office Online support fold, but there was no evidence of that today.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com..

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