The free Microsoft Office Live file-storage and -sharing service adds extremely useful online features to Microsoft Office.

If you use Microsoft Office, you'll want to sign up for Office Live Workspace. Currently in beta, the free service offers online file-storage, document-sharing, and desktop-presentation features, and finally gives Microsoft a real challenger to the likes of Google Docs and Zoho. Visit Business Advisor for the latest IT news and reviews to help your business grow.

Unlike those two excellent productivity suites, Workspace doesn't offer web-based applications; instead, it uses a free, downloadable plug-in to connect to the desktop versions of Office XP, 2003, and 2007. The plug-in installs a toolbar in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that allows you to save new files to the Workspace site, add files already saved on your hard drive to the site, or open and edit documents previously stored online.

The Microsoft Office Live site supports both Internet Explorer and Firefox, but the Firefox version lacks a useful ActiveX-enabled button that opens a stored document in the appropriate Office app with one click.

The easy tie-in to online storage (500MB for the beta) brings welcome backup and anywhere-access advantages. You can use the Microsoft Office Live service to store your work documents and then access them from your home PC, for example.

You also can share either individual documents or collections of documents called workspaces with anyone (although users will have to be logged in to the service to edit files), and you can create online event or task lists that you can then synchronise with Outlook. If you're on a computer without Office, you can still preview files on the site or create simple, rich-text notes.

Because you create and edit Workspace-stored files in Office locally, you need an internet connection only to open a file from Workspace and save the file back there.

Your changes will save to the online copy when you're connected, but changes you make to the online version do not automatically synchronise with any locally stored version (if you have one). This means you could end up with two - or more - versions of a document with the same name. Google Docs and Zoho allow you to edit and save files online, which eliminates this potential problem.

See also: Microsoft Office Live Workspaces

NEXT PAGE: Shared view, and our expert verdict > >

Workspace also throws in a nice bonus feature called Shared View; Microsoft informally calls it "LiveMeeting Lite". Through it you can invite another Workspace user to view your desktop or even take control. Visit Business Advisor for the latest IT news and reviews to help your business grow.

Office Live Workspace greatly extends the usability and convenience of Microsoft Office, but it's clearly still a beta. Most of the site wouldn't display on one of my test computers, and on the same machine, SharedView didn't work. Microsoft was unable to figure out the cause of the problems.

See also: Microsoft Office Live Workspaces

OUR VERDICT

Workspace does a good job of adding extremely useful new features to Microsoft's ubiquitous productivity suite. Using it is a no-brainer if you've already sprung for Office. But if you haven't, you can find what you need in Google Docs or Zoho.

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