After an excruciatingly drawn-out development process, Microsoft's Office Live Workspaces - the company's attempt to marry Microsoft Office to the emerging web services "cloud" - is finally upon us.

And true to form, Microsoft Office Live Workspaces accomplishes its goal in a decidedly Microsoft-like fashion. Eschewing the trend towards hosted mini-versions of popular productivity tools (Google Apps and Zoho Office, for example) in favour of a rudimentary set of collaboration extensions to the company's "fat client" Office platform.

It's an evolutionary approach, one that ostensibly is designed to allow Microsoft to pay lip service (embrace) to the whole software as a service (SaaS) model while redefining the concept (extend) of SaaS to include the "Web enabling" of traditional application architectures.

Oh, and it's also boring as hell. As product launches go, Microsoft Office Live Workspaces has to be one of the most anti-climactic releases of the past decade. Not only does OLW do nothing really new, it doesn't even do what it does as well as other, competing solutions do.

Sharing like it's 1999

For example: sharing an Office document. With Microsoft Office Live Workspaces, you first upload the document to your Office Live Workspace (or save it to there from within Office via the Microsoft Office Live Workspaces connector).

Once uploaded, you can set some basic sharing parameters and permissions and advertise it to other "Live" users, who can then preview the document via a fairly robust document viewing plug-in for Internet Explorer. As soon as someone decides to open the shared document for editing, however, everyone else gets locked out. They can continue to preview the document, but making changes is not allowed until the editing user saves the document and returns control.

This sort of "all or nothing" document check-in/check-out used to be considered state-of-the-art... back in 1999. Today's users expect a bit more from their document management systems, including the ability to simultaneously edit parts of documents and merge changes to shared documents. And lest someone accuse me of being too hard on Microsoft (after all, Microsoft Office Live Workspaces is a freebie), consider that one of Microsoft's emerging competitors in this space - tiny InstaColl - is letting you do exactly this kind of shared editing (and more) via its cleverly named Live Documents solution.

Microsoft Office Live Workspaces is still in beta, but when it debuts early next year (also as a free service) it promises to deliver a far more integrated "Live" experience, including highly granular document sharing (down to the cell/row-level in Excel), detailed usage tracking and versioning controls, and the ability to share documents directly from your local desktop (no upload required).

When compared to an innovative solution like Microsoft Office Live Workspaces, Microsoft's offering looks decidedly pedestrian. We've already discussed the shared documents mechanism. There's also a shared calendaring function with Tasks/Lists (been there) and a desktop sharing mechanism (done that). In fact, the longer we look at Microsoft Office Live Workspaces, the harder it is for us to see anything compelling to write about. It's in essence a mish-mash of recycled ideas that have already been done better, with broader platform support, by others.

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