Document Sharing with Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010

Posted: 
December 21, 2009

New features in Office 2010 improve document sharing with SharePoint 2010. With Office Web Apps, which is licensed with some editions of Office 2010, users will be able to read and write Office files on a SharePoint 2010 server using only a Web browser. Other features include simultaneous editing of the same file ("coauthoring") and the ability to stream PowerPoint presentations over the Web. However, organizations will have to upgrade current installations to the latest versions of Office and SharePoint to get all the new features.

The SharePoint 2010 Lineup

SharePoint Foundation 2010 is the next release of Microsoft's platform for team collaboration sites, currently called Windows SharePoint Services. Team sites help groups of workers share information and work together. For example, a product development team might use a team site to gather ideas for product features, collaborate on specifications, track project schedules, and communicate project status. Once SharePoint Foundation is installed and configured, workers can create and edit sites without IT involvement. SharePoint Foundation will ship as a free download for the 64-bit editions of Windows Server 2008 and later, and its use will be covered by the Windows Server Client Access License (CAL).

Along with its role in building and managing team collaboration sites, SharePoint Foundation 2010 provides much of the underlying technology for SharePoint Server 2010, Microsoft's platform for corporate portal Web sites and applications.

SharePoint Foundation 2010 and SharePoint Server 2010 (collectively, "SharePoint 2010") offer new features for sharing Office documents, including full read-write access with a Web browser (which requires Office Web Apps), simultaneous authoring, and the ability to stream PowerPoint presentations to users with only a Web browser. However, these features require, at the very least, an Office 2010 license. For some features, users will need Office 2010 applications on their PCs.

Office Web Apps and SharePoint 2010

Office Web Apps are browser-accessible versions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word. Users with a supported browser can create new files and open and edit stored files from any supported browser. Officially supported browsers include Internet Explorer (IE) 7 or later; Firefox 3.5 or later for Windows, Mac, or Linux; and Safari 4.0 or later for the Mac. Unofficially, Microsoft has said that other standards-compliant modern browsers, such as Firefox 3 or Opera, should work for most features.

Customers will be able to use Office Web Apps in the following three ways:

  • Installed on SharePoint 2010 for use on a private network
  • Running on SharePoint Online, the Microsoft-hosted subscription service based on SharePoint
  • Via Windows Live SkyDrive, a free advertising-supported online file-sharing service.

Office Web Apps could be useful for mobile users who need to review and modify files on a corporate SharePoint site, but whose devices may not have Office 2010 installed. From PCs with Office 2010 installed, Office Web Apps give SharePoint 2010 users a more seamless browsing experience than prior versions—in the past, users could browse SharePoint sites with a Web browser, but had to launch a desktop Office application to work on files.

Installing and Using Office Web Apps

To enable Office Web Apps on SharePoint 2010, IT administrators must install and configure them (e.g., turn on necessary services) on each SharePoint server where they are to be available.

Once Office Web Apps are configured, whenever a user with a supported browser navigates to an Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, or Word file on the server, the browser will open the file using Office Web Apps by default. Administrators may override this setting, and users may open the file in the corresponding Office desktop application by right-clicking or choosing an option from a drop-down menu. Similarly, when a user without Office 2010 uses a command in the new SharePoint 2010 Ribbon interface to create a new Office file, the browser will launch the appropriate Office Web App interface. Office Web Apps honor SharePoint's file-level permissions settings: if a user has read-only permissions for a particular file, he will not be able to use Office Web Apps to write to the file, for instance.

The user experience for Office Web Apps is similar to that of the full Office 2010 applications in several important respects. Specifically, Office Web Apps offer a similar interface, document fidelity, data integrity, and asynchronous data exchange to improve performance.

Similar interfaces. Users who have been trained on Office 2010 will not have to learn a different interface to use Office Web Apps because interfaces will be similar to those of the corresponding Office 2010 desktop applications. However, many features found in the full desktop applications will not be available in Office Web Apps.

Document fidelity. Office Web Apps render files similarly to the full Office 2010 applications, so fonts, styles, and layout should look approximately the same. However, the rendering technology may differ among browser versions and applications, which might lead to slight variations in performance and fidelity. For instance, Word files will be rendered using Microsoft's Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML) for browsers with Silverlight installed, but as PNG files for other browsers.

Data integrity. Support for "round tripping" means that no data will be changed or lost when files are opened, changed, and saved in Office Web Apps, even if an Office Web App doesn't support a particular feature. For example, users cannot edit watermarks in Word files with the Word Web App, but a previously created watermark will remain in place while Word Web App users change other portions of the file. When a user later opens the file in desktop Word, the editable watermark will still be accessible.

Asynchronous. Office Web Apps are based on Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technology, which has become popular for creating interactive Web applications. With AJAX, each time a user enters or changes data, the browser and application exchange small bits of XML data rather than refreshing the entire page. This improves performance and should make the browser more resilient to hangs and crashes in case of bandwidth fluctuations.

Caveats: Features, File Formats, Licensing

Office Web Apps are a useful addition to traditional Office desktop applications but cannot serve as a full substitute. Organizations should be aware of the following limitations:

Features. Microsoft has not published a list of Office 2010 features that will (and won't) be available in Office Web Apps. (For a chart showing some known differences between the Office 2010 applications and their Web Apps equivalents, see the chart "Office 2010 vs. Office Web Apps".) The company says the Web Apps are most appropriate for reading and "light editing." For example, Word Web App will support spell-checking, AutoCorrect, auto-numbering and list making, and tables. However, some formatting features such as watermarks won't be supported, users will not be able to add custom words to the spelling dictionary, revision-tracking marks and comments will be read-only, scripts written in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) will not execute, and some files containing VBA scripts may not open. Similar limitations are likely for the other Office Web Apps—for instance, Excel Web App will let users view charts but not create or edit them, and PowerPoint Web App will let users view but not create backgrounds and animated slide transitions. To summarize, organizations should be aware of which end-user features for each Office 2010 application are critical to the organization and test Office Web Apps to see whether those features are completely available, read-only, or completely unavailable.

File formats and types. Office Web Apps will support read-write capabilities only for files that were created in Microsoft's XML-based formats (e.g., DOCX, XLSX, PPTX), which were introduced with Office 2007 and serve as the default formats for Office 2007 and 2010. Office files in other formats, including traditional binary formats, will either be converted with a viewer so they may be read or they may not be readable at all. (For instance, DOC files are read-only, but XLS files stored on SharePoint 2010 and accessed via Office Web Apps cannot be read.) Companies that want to make extensive use of Office Web Apps will have to ensure that their users are creating files in Office 2007 or later formats, which will require deploying a plug-in for Office 2003 users. Office Web Apps will also be unable to open Office files protected with Microsoft's Active Directory Rights Management Services (AD RMS) technology or Excel spreadsheets that use Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE).

Silverlight. Although Office Web Apps will work without Microsoft's Silverlight technology, Silverlight offers better performance because files are compressed more efficiently, have better fidelity (e.g., ClearType fonts are rendered more clearly and PowerPoint animations are smoother), and have the ability to zoom greater than 100%.

Licensing. Customers will not require new SharePoint Server 2010 CALs to implement the Office Web Apps—the free SharePoint Foundation 2010 is sufficient and offers the same Office Web Apps support as SharePoint Server 2010.

However, when Office Web Apps are used in conjunction with SharePoint 2010, each accessing device must have a license for Office Web Apps. The only ways to get these licenses will be to buy a license for Office 2010 Standard or Professional Plus editions (available only through volume licensing) or to have active Software Assurance coverage on Office at the time of the Office 2010 launch. This licensing provision could limit the usefulness of this feature—for instance, it's not clear how or whether users will be licensed to use Office Web Apps from non-Windows computers, mobile devices, or Internet kiosks, since their devices may be incapable of running Office 2010.

Office Web Apps will not be licensed for external users on SharePoint for Internet Sites, a SharePoint edition that is licensed for external use.

Finally, Microsoft has promised that Office Web Apps will be available on SharePoint Online, but has not revealed licensing details. In all likelihood, each accessing user will need a SharePoint Online subscription as well as an Office 2010 license, or perhaps an as-yet-unannounced Office subscription.

Coauthoring

When Office 2010 files are posted on a SharePoint 2010 workspace, multiple users will be able to open and edit them simultaneously from some of the Office 2010 desktop applications and Office Web Apps—a feature that Microsoft calls coauthoring. (For a high-level technical description of how this feature works, see the illustration "How Coauthoring Works".)

Coauthoring, which has been available from online Office competitors such as Google and Zoho, can simplify or speed teamwork in many scenarios, such as editing portions of a Word document or PowerPoint presentation and getting approval from multiple parties before creating a final version, approving budgets or completing business forecasts in Excel, or taking meeting notes in a single OneNote file rather than having to consolidate multiple files from different attendees.

Using Coauthoring

The desktop versions of OneNote 2010, PowerPoint 2010, and Word 2010, as well as Excel Web App and OneNote Web App, will support coauthoring. (For the desktop version of OneNote, coauthoring is not new, but the implementation has changed.)

To enable coauthoring from one of the desktop applications, a user must open the file and then go to the Backstage (accessed from the File menu in Office 2010) and select the Share option. From Office Web Apps that support coauthoring, this feature will be automatically enabled—two users need simply to open the same file in their browsers, then enable editing view, and both users will have read-write capabilities. During coauthoring, users will be able to see the names or initials of the other people working on the document from a menu in the desktop applications' File menu or by hovering their mouse over a status bar at the bottom of the screen.

The user experience during coauthoring differs slightly depending on the application being used.

Excel Web App shows all changes to all users in near-real time, with a lag of about three seconds. Although the status bar notifies users of the presence of other users in the same file, Excel Web App does not have granular notification capabilities—it cannot, for example, notify one user that a colleague is currently entering data into a particular cell, row, or table. Conflicts, such as two users entering different data into the same cell simultaneously, are resolved by the rule of "last update wins"—essentially, the change that is completed last will persist. To avoid such situations, teams will have to assign particular tasks or data sets to each user ahead of time.

The Excel 2010 desktop application does not support coauthoring, but a command lets users e-mail a link to the file location on SharePoint 2010. Recipients who click that link will by default open the file in their browser using Excel Web App (assuming it's installed on the server) rather than the desktop version of Excel.

OneNote 2010 and OneNote Web App show all changes to all users in near-real time, similar to how Excel Web App works. Unlike Excel Web App, however, the OneNote applications offer visual cues where others are currently working, such as the user's name and a designated color next to a particular section of notes. If these cues are ignored and two users change the same data at the same time, the application will generally try to reconcile and accept both changes—for example, if one user changes a few words in a line at the same time that another user copies and pastes that line to a new location, the new text will appear in the new location. Conflicts that can't be resolved this way, such as one user deleting text as another adds to it, will be resolved in "last update wins" fashion; a grayed-out version of the page with the "losing" updates will also be available in case users want to accept a different set of updates.

Previous versions of the desktop OneNote application supported simultaneous authoring through a feature called Live Session, which worked on any OneNote file regardless of location. Live Session has been removed from OneNote 2010, and the company recommends using shared notebooks on SharePoint 2010 or OneNote Web App instead.

PowerPoint 2010 does not show all changes to all users simultaneously. Rather, when a user manually saves a file, all other users who have the file open will be presented with a notification that file updates are available. To see the changes, the other users must also manually save the file. Then, the other users may accept or reject each change individually, or all the changes at once. (Each save clears the "Undo" queue, meaning that users can only undo changes back to the time of the last save.)

Conflict resolution is accomplished through notifications: if two users have changed the same portion of the file, the second user to save the file will see a notification of a conflict between versions. The second user can then resolve the conflict by manually accepting or rejecting the first user's changes. PowerPoint 2010 also offers a tabbed view showing every previously saved version of a file; in case of a major problem, users can select one of these tabs to revert to an earlier version.

Word 2010 works like PowerPoint 2010 in that it commits and shows others' changes only when the user manually saves the file. It also allows users to accept or reject changes made by others since the last save and keeps track of all past revisions. However, it has better safeguards against simultaneous edits of the same content because it shows the name of the user editing a particular paragraph and blocks all other users from editing that paragraph at the same time. In addition, the first person who offers to share a Word file can manually block specific paragraphs from being edited by other users. Revision-tracking can also be used to keep track of who's changing what; revision-tracking marks are updated with each save.

Caveats: Process, Availability, Cache

Coauthoring is a useful feature, if for no other reason than it ends the current situation where having a file open locks all other users out of that file. However, organizations need to keep the following factors in mind when evaluating this feature.

Process. Although it's possible to imagine many theoretical conflicts with coauthoring, in reality users will probably behave rationally during shared work sessions, just as users are expected not to make random or capricious changes to the same file in serial fashion today. Nonetheless, to minimize frustration and wasted time, teams should set clear boundaries and tasks before beginning shared work on a file.

Not universally available. Organizations should note that coauthoring is not available in all Office 2010 applications and their Web equivalents, which could surprise users who aren't aware of this limitation. Microsoft says that coauthoring will eventually become available on the free, Windows Live—based versions of PowerPoint Web App and Word Web App. However, it has made no such promise for the SharePoint-based versions of these Office Web Apps. One possibility: coauthoring on these Web Apps may require a future version of SharePoint or a license for a future version of Office. Similarly, Microsoft has given no timeline for coauthoring in the desktop Excel application, but this might be available in a future version.

For Excel, PowerPoint, and Word files, coauthoring works only on files that have been saved in the XML formats introduced in the 2007 versions of these applications. As with Office Web Apps, organizations that want to enable coauthoring should ensure that all users save Office files in these new default formats.

Broadcast Slide Show

PowerPoint 2010 users can broadcast completed slide shows to viewers who have only a Web browser. This could be useful for one-to-many real-time presentations, which today require each user to have a Web conferencing client or a subscription to a Web-conferencing service, or requires the presenter to tell everybody else when to change slides. When combined with audio teleconferencing, Broadcast Slide Show could reduce the need for more sophisticated (and expensive) Web conferencing services, such as Live Meeting or Cisco's WebEx, although these services also help presenters manage audience interaction.

Deployment. To use Broadcast Slide Show in conjunction with SharePoint 2010, the Office Web Apps must be installed on the server. The installation process automatically creates one broadcast site—a SharePoint site using a new PowerPoint Broadcast Site template—from which slide shows are broadcast. However, IT departments may create multiple broadcast sites manually and assign different permissions (presenter, attendee, or administrator) to groups or individuals for each site. This could let organizations create dedicated broadcast sites for particular groups—for instance, a site from which only the marketing team can broadcast slide shows.

Usage. PowerPoint 2010 users can access the Broadcast Slide Show feature from the Slide Show tab or from the Backstage. When users select the command, PowerPoint will open the user's default e-mail client and create an e-mail prepopulated with the file location. Recipients simply click on the link in the e-mail and will be taken to the PowerPoint Web App in view mode. Then, the sender begins the slide show and it plays in real time in the recipient's browser. Recipients must have a browsers supported by Office Web Apps. They will see static portions of the slide deck, but embedded audio and video and ActiveX controls won't work, transitions will appear as simple fade-ins between slides, and hyperlinks to other presentations will not work. (They will display the last slide of the current presentation.) Also, presenters will not be able to add ink annotations or markup during the broadcast.

For organizations without SharePoint 2010, or that want to extend broadcasts outside the firewall, slide shows can also be broadcast via a new free PowerPoint Broadcast Service hosted by Microsoft. (Access to this service is included with PowerPoint 2010.) In this case, presenters sign in with a Windows Live ID and then receive an Internet link that they can share with recipients.

Many organizations may want to continue to use Web conferencing services for features such as real-time chat between the audience and presenter, voice conference bridges that permit the audience to interact with the presenter or other audience members, and other features that will not be part of Broadcast Slide Show.

Other Changes

Other Office 2010 changes affect how users collaborate using SharePoint 2010.

Customizable Ribbon. Office 2010 features a user-customizable Ribbon that can be used to ease certain tasks related to SharePoint. For instance, users will be able to add commands to save a file to particular SharePoint libraries or to e-mail links to documents and libraries stored on a SharePoint server.

Some commands removed. Office 2007 applications let users create a document workspace on SharePoint and manage documents on a SharePoint workspace from within the application. These commands have been removed in Office 2010. Instead, users can open or save a file to a particular SharePoint library through the File menu or Ribbon command. As the user works, changes are saved to a local cache, and Office 2010 will automatically sync the changes to the file on the SharePoint server.

Availability and Resources

Public betas of Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 became available in Nov. 2009, and the products are expected to be released in the first half of 2010.

The SharePoint 2010 site, which includes more information and links to download the beta version, is at sharepoint2010.microsoft.com/Pages/default.aspx.

The Office 2010 beta site, with links to download the beta and detailed information about new features, is at officebeta.microsoft.com.

Download the Office Web Apps beta at www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=27d81b1c-18ae-4983-8e1c-224bb747eb99.

Deployment information for Office Web Apps is available at technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee695756(office.14).aspx.

A white paper with deployment information for PowerPoint's Broadcast Slide Show feature can be downloaded at www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=3a8ff829-d0e6-4b35-b637-16780d238fec.

The File Synchronization Service via SOAP over HTTP (MS-FSSHTTP), a new Microsoft protocol used to exchange data in coauthoring scenarios, is documented at msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd943623.aspx.

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