Microsoft has unveiled what it calls an online "test drive" for the Microsoft Office 2007 System, amounting to a quasi-web-enabled version of Office that runs within a web browser. The preview is intended to give users a chance to try out the new version of Office without installing the beta on a computer. The trial requires Citrix support and Internet Explorer 5.5 or later.
So far, the trial has been a hit. There has been a "wait" since late last night to try the beta, as Microsoft has throttled the numbers of simultaneous users that can try the preview system. At the time of writing, new users were being warned of 150 minute waits. (In our experience, the wait ticks away quickly; in one instance, 50 minutes passed by in only 10.)
Once the test environment is set up, users can explore a limited Windows desktop running Office 2007. The preview can be described as a series of tutorials meant to highlight the new features of the Office 2007 System. For example, Outlook 2007 launches with a fully loaded inbox and a window devoted to telling you what you should try out. If you’re new to Office 2007, the tutorials appear to be quite informative. This is a great chance to check out the Office Ribbon for yourself. (As an aside, we spotted a handful of errors in the tutorials, including references to the new Office button being in the "upper-right corner," when it’s actually on the left. Heads up, new users.)
Other publications have reported that this "test drive" also demonstrates the online potential of Microsoft Office, but this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how this preview works. Rather than develop an Office system that "runs" over the web, what the company has done is simply open up Microsoft Terminal Server connections to a cluster configured for Office (hosted by Runaware). You are essentially connecting over the Internet to a Citrix Metaframe terminal server session running on another Windows system. That is, this is more similar to "Remote Desktop" than to an application suite meant to run inside a web browser using, e.g., AJAX or Flash. As an "online office solution," this is no solution at all. It’s extremely bandwidth and resource intensive. Note, this isn’t a slam, this is merely a clarification on what this "test drive" is really about. It’s not a web office.
According to Microsoft, over 2.5 million people have downloaded the Office 2007 beta. The new suite is expected to go on sale alongside Widows Vista at the beginning of next year. It marks a significant development for the company, insofar as they are abandoning many years of a largely consistent user interface in favor of an almost entirely redesigned system. Microsoft believes that the redesign will pay off in spades as customers find new productivity enhancements, but the marked difference from versions past could be considered a risk for the company, should the Office 2007 System meet mostly disinterested customers.