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Collaboration in Microsoft Office: Painful but not impossible

New tools in Microsoft Office let you coedit documents in real time, but you must be prepared to jump through hoops.

Microsoft Office has long been the gold standard for creating, editing, and formatting serious documents. Google Docs and other Web-based competitors, however, have outpaced Office by making it easy to share and co-edit documents in real time.

Enter the new Office suites. Released earlier this year, they make up lost ground by letting you collaborate with other people through a mixture of desktop and browser applications. The features are a step in the right direction, but Microsoft's new take on collaboration ultimately fails to be as easy as it should be.

Whether you're thinking about purchasing an Office 365 subscription or buying Office 2013 desktop software--or are already using either one--read on to learn about the agony and ecstasy of co-editing.

I tested collaboration for Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint, both with colleagues on an Office 365 Small Business Premium account and with people outside our company who didn't even have Office 2013.

Collaborating with outsiders

Through the use of SkyDrive cloud storage and the Office Web Apps, the new Office lets you share and coauthor with anyone inside or outside your organization.

For example, a document creator can invite anyone to view or edit a document in the Word Web App. Go into the File menu and click Share, which brings up options for getting others on board. Basically, you create a sharing link and send it via email or instant messaging, or you can generate email invitations to Outlook contacts you designate. Either way, before creating or sending the link, you must save the document to SkyDrive.

When the recipient clicks the link, a browser window opens the file in the Word, Excel, OneNote, or PowerPoint Web App. Be aware that even if you've sent a link authorizing the recipient to edit the document, the recipient sees the same pop-up message that all Office apps generate when you open any document via email or Internet download, warning that because the Internet can be unsafe, by default you can only read the document. The recipient must click a button to enable editing--an odd step, since you had created a link specifically empowering him or her to edit the document.

You and your designated co-authors can work on the document at the same time, with a couple of limitations. In Word, for example, you and your colleagues can't edit the same paragraph simultaneously. If you try to do so, you'll get a pop-up message to that effect.

On top of that, you can't actually see the work a co-author has done until that person saves it. You can tell in real time, thankfully, that someone else is working on the document, as the app pops up the names of the co-authors. (Alternatively, click File > Info for a backstage view of who's currently editing.) If the other editor isn't signed in to a Microsoft account, he or she will appear as a generic 'Guest'.

Saved changes don't appear automatically. Rather, Word notifies you that updates are available, and you must save or click on refresh buttons to see a co-author's work. Once you do so, changes appear highlighted in pale green.

Co-authoring works fine even when one person is using the Word Web App and the other is using the desktop app. The same holds true for OneNote, where changes do appear automatically, also highlighted in pale green.

You cannot co-edit in Excel while one person is working in the desktop Excel. If you try, you'll get a message saying the spreadsheet is locked. But you can co-author in the Excel Web App, which is a lot more limited in functionality. Changes appear automatically only after an author leaves a cell, and since they are not highlighted it isn't always easy to tell what a co-author has changed. But the app does indicate when others are actively editing.

Microsoft recommends that PowerPoint co-authors stick to either the desktop or the Web app, not both at the same time. If one person is using the desktop version and the other is working in the browser, changes might not save properly. PowerPoint changes don't have to be saved, though. Instead, they show up after an editor finishes working with an object, such as an image or text box.

Collaborating with colleagues

People working at organizations that have signed up for an Office 365 business plan have collaboration tools that aren't available in the consumer versions. Among other things, Office 365 Small Business Premium and Office 365 Midsize Business provide hosted SharePoint and Lync servers for collaboration and unified communications, respectively.

The process of creating documents and inviting coworkers to share them as either viewers or editors is essentially the same here as it is for consumers. There's a quirk you should know about, however. By default, when you first accept an invitation to edit a document, Office 365 launches the relevant Web app, even if you have a desktop installation of Office 2013. To co-edit in the desktop Word, you must click the Edit in Word button within the Word Web App and wait for the program to launch, a time-consuming extra step.

An Office 365 administrator can change this default deep inside the settings for the shared site so that documents launch in the desktop app. It's too bad you can't opt for either the desktop or the Web app before either one launches.

Also, take note that while you might expect the document you've been editing to appear in your SkyDrive Pro workspace automatically, this isn't the case. Documents by default show up only in the SkyDrive files of their creator.

To revisit a document created by a coworker, you have to click a link to the document. One way is to find the email invitation containing that link. An easier route is to follow the shared file by clicking the Follow option in the original invitation. That action puts a link to the document within Followed Documents in the left navigation bar of your SkyDrive Pro workspace, under My Documents.

If you've set up a newsfeed in your Office 365 profile, you'll be notified about changes to documents you're following. But you have to click Followed Documents to see these files. Microsoft could have made things easier with an interface that showed Followed Documents alongside the user's documents.

Chatting while collaborating

Another major quirk we noticed in Office 365 business environments had to do with chatting. When logged in, I could instant-message a colleague from the Outlook Web App by clicking the People item at the top of the Office 365 home screen. But if I then clicked SkyDrive to work on a document, a window told me to end the IM session, and I couldn't use the Outlook Web App to IM while working on a shared document. Microsoft said this isn't how it's supposed to work.

It turns out that there's another way to IM in Office 365: You have to launch the Lync desktop application that's included in the Office 2013 desktop software, and sign in to your account from within Lync. You can then message colleagues who are co-editing documents from within the document by clicking their name in the list of active editors.

Or, at least, you can in theory. In our tests, we found that sometimes the IM icon was grayed out even with Lync showing the other party as being present. Clearly, Microsoft has a lot of work to do to make chat effortless for collaborators. It's difficult to understand the decision to create two chat services that don't integrate with each other, and having to launch a separate application once you're logged in to the Web service is annoying. The erratic behavior of Lync is the icing on the cake.

Bottom line on collaboration

Microsoft clearly wants to empower people to collaborate on documents, but its new Office suites don't make things easy. The various processes for co-authoring in core apps are confusing. In Word, especially, collaboration is slowed down by the requirement that everyone involved must save or refresh documents to see one another's changes. This setup contrasts sharply with Google's word-processing app, which displays changes as users type them.

Document sharing in Office 365 business environments is also needlessly unintuitive, making it hard to find a shared document that you didn't create, or to chat with a colleague while opening a file. It's nice that Microsoft is taking steps in the right direction, but so far these are baby steps at best. If co-editing is a regular part of your workflow, the new Office enables that, but in fits and starts. Either learn these quirks inside and out so that you can work around them, or consider using Google Apps for Business instead.

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