Microsoft Office Online gets better - on Linux, too


Updated: February 25, 2017

One of the core things that will make or break your Linux experience is the lack of the Microsoft Office suite, well, for Linux. If you are forced to use Office products to make a living, and this applies to a very large number of people, you might not be able to afford open-source alternatives. Get the paradox?

Indeed, LibreOffice a great free program, but what if your client, customer or boss demands Word and Excel files? Can you, indeed, afford any mistakes or errors or glitches in converting these files from ODT or whatnot into DOCX and such, and vice versa? This is a very tricky set of questions. Unfortunately, for most people, technically, this means Linux is out of limits. Well, not quite.

Teaser

Enter Microsoft Office Online, Enter Linux

For a number of years, Microsoft has had its cloud office offering. No news there. What makes this cool and relevant is, it's available through any modern browser interface, and this means Linux, too! I have also tested this solution a while back, and it worked great. I was able to use the product just fine, save files in their native format, or even export my documents in the ODF format, which is really nice.

I decided to revisit this suite and see how it's evolved in the past few years, and see whether it still likes Linux. My scapegoat for this experience was a Fedora 25 instance, and I had the Microsoft Office Online running open in several tabs. I did this in parallel to testing SoftMaker Office 2016. Sounds like a lot of fun, and it was.

First impressions

I have to say, I was pleased. The Office does not require any special plugins. No Silverlight or Flash or anything like that. Pure HTML and Javascript, and lots of it. Still, the interface is fairly responsive. The only thing I did not like was the gray background in Word documents, which can be exhausting after a while. Other than that, the suite was working fine, there were no delays, lags or weird, unexpected errors. But let us proceed slowly then, shall we.

The suite does require that you log in with an online account or a phone number - it does not have to be a Live or Hotmail email. Any one will do. If you also have a Microsoft phone, then you can use the same account, and you will be able to sync your data. The account grants you 5 GB of OneDrive storage for free, as well. This is quite neat. Not stellar or super exciting, but rather decent.

MS Office, welcome page

You have access to a whole range of programs, including the mandatory trio - Word, Excel and Powerpoint, but then, the rest of the stuff is also available, including some new fancy stuff. Documents are auto-saved, but you can also download copies and convert to other formats, like PDF and ODF.

For me, this is excellent. And let me share a short personal story. I write my fantasy books using LibreOffice. But then, when I need to send them to a publisher for editing or proofreading, I need to convert them to DOCX. Alas, this requires Microsoft Office. With my Linux problem solving book, I had to use Word from the start, because there was a lot of collaboration work required with my editor, which mandated the use of the proprietary solution. There are no emotions here. Only cold monetary and business considerations. Mistakes are not acceptable.

Word, new document

Having access to Office Online can give a lot of people the leeway they need for occasional, recreational use of Word and Excel and alike without having to buy the whole, expensive suite. If you are a daytime LibreOffice fan, you can be a nighttime party animal at the Microsoft Office Heartbreakers Club without a guilty conscience. When someone ships you a Word or Powerpoint file, you can upload and manipulate them online, then export as needed. Likewise, you can create your work online, send it to people with strict requirements, then grab yourself a copy in ODF, and work with LibreOffice if needed. The flexibility is quite useful, but that should not be your main driver. Still, for Linux people, this gives them a lot of freedom they do not normally have. Because even if they do want to use Microsoft Office, it simply isn't available as a native install.

Save as, export options

Features, options, tools

I started hammering out a document - with all the fine trimming of a true jousting rouncer. I wrote some text, applied a style or three, hyperlinked some text, embedded an image, added a footnote, and then commented on my writing and even replied to myself in the best fashion of a poly-personality geek.

Apart from the gray background - and we will learn how to work around this in a nice yet nerdy way skunkworks style, because there isn't an option to tweak the background color in the browser interface - things were looking fine.

You even have Skype integrated into the suite, so you can chat and collaborate. Or rather collaborate and listen. Hue hue. Quite neat. The right-click button lets you select a few quick actions, including links, comments and translations. The last piece still needs a lot of work, because it did not quite give me what I expected. The translations are wonky.

Skype active

Right click options

Right click options, more

Translations, still wonky

You can also add images - including embedded Bing search, which will also, by default, filter images based on their licensing and re-distribution rights. This is neat, especially if you need to create a document and must avoid any copyright claims and such.

Images, online search

More on comments, tracking

Quite useful. For realz. The online nature of this product also means changes and edits to the documents will be tracked by default, so you also have a basic level of versioning available. However, session edits are lost once you close the document.

Comments

Edit activity log

The one error that will visibly come up - if you try to edit the document in Word or Excel on Linux, you will get prompted that you're being naughty, because this is not a supported action, for obvious reasons.

Edit error

Excel and friends

The practical workflows extends beyond Word. I also tried Excel, and it did as advertised, including having some neat and useful templates and such. Worked just fine, and there's no lag updating cells and formulas. You get most of the functionality you need and expect.

Excel, interesting templates

New blank spreadsheet

Excel, budget template

OneDrive

This is where you can create and organize folders and files, move documents about, and share them with your friends (if you have any) and colleagues. 5 GB for free, upgradeable for a fee, of course. Worked fine, overall. It does take a few moments to refresh and display contents. Open documents will not be deleted, so this may look like a bug, but it makes perfect sense from the computational perspective.

OneDrive

Help

If you get confused - or feel like being dominatrixed by AI, you can ask the cloud collective intelligence of the Redmond Borg ship for assistance. This is quite useful, if not as straightforward or laser-sharp as it can be. But the effort is benevolent.

What to do, interactive help

Problems

During my three-hour adventure, I only encountered two glitches. One, during a document edit, the browser had a warning (yellow triangle) about an insecure element loaded and used in an otherwise secure HTTPS session. Two, I hit a snag of failing to create a new Excel document. A one-time issue, and it hasn't happened since.

Document creation error

Conclusion

Microsoft Office Online is a great product, and better than it was when I tested it some two years ago. It's fairly snappy, it looks nice, it behaves well, the errors are far and few in between, and it offers genuine Microsoft Office compatibility even to Linux users, which can be of significant personal and business importance to some. I won't say this is the best thing that happened to humanity since VHS was invented, but it's a nice addition, and it bridges a big gap that Linux folks have faced since day one. Quite handy, and the ODF support is another neat touch.

Now, to make things even spicier, if you like this whole cloud concept thingie, you might also be interested in Open365, a LibreOffice-based office productivity platform, with an added bonus of a mail client and image processing software, plus 20 GB free storage. Best of all, you can have both of these running in your browser, in parallel. All it takes is another tab or two.

Back to Microsoft, if you a Linuxperson, you may actually require Microsoft office products now and then. The easier way to enjoy them - or at the very least, use them when needed without having to commit to a full operating system stack - is through the online office suite. Free, elegant, and largely transparent. Worth checking out, provided you can put the ideological game aside. There you go. Enjoy thy clouden. Or something.

Cheers.

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