Using the Office Live Workspace Beta
My latest, most favourite tool on the web has to be Office Live Workspace Beta. It's an interesting extension to Microsoft Office and effectively allows one to create a free SharePoint repository for Word, Excel and PowerPoint document. It also provides add-in tools for Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint to allow you to interact directly with your workspace, just as you would with Office SharePoint Server on an enterprise network.
You can also share your workspace with others and allow them to view, edit and comment on your documents and also collaborate on documents by accessing a shared screen with you.
Office Live Workspace beta works with Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Windows Vista using either Internet Explorer 6 or 7 and Firefox 2.0. If your using Apple OS X 10.2.x and Firefox 2.0 to access Live Workspace too. I tested it with Windows Vista x64 and both Internet Explorer 7.0 and Firefox 3.0 Beta 4. In fact some of these screen shots were done with Internet Explorer 7.0 and others with Firefox 3.0. I challenge you to try and determine which are which. I think Microsoft has done an excellent job of getting all the functionality to work in both.
To get started, visit http://officeliveworkspacecommunity.com, which is also redirected from http://workspace.officelive.com, a far shorter and simpler URL :)
The first thing you'll notice is that it's been selected as a finalist in CNET's Webware 100 Productivity Aware for Web 2.0 applications and services. If you feel it is a worthy winner then vote for it at http://www.webware.com/html/ww/100/2008/prod.html.
That aside, you will need to sign up with a Windows Live ID. It is a Live Workspace after all, and that's got to mean need a Live ID.
You then get to sign-up free of charge, which is always compelling in and of itself :)
Once you've signed up and signed in you will be presented with a screen similar to the following. Obviously your workspace will be empty. Mine has a few files stored in it already.
You will be able to create new documents, workspaces and add documents right away. It is possible to add multiple documents at once either by selecting the files directly or through drag and drop. I used drag and drop and it work very well. You can also install the Office Add-in tools which can be sure to extend your Microsoft Office applications to include menu commands for your Office Live Workspace, which enables your Office applications to work directly with your workspace. It's a pretty decent feature to have and it makes working with the workspace far more efficient and seamless.
I do, however, wish the add-ins extended to Outlook as well. As an example, I can create a list of contacts in my Live Workspace, but I can only do so by typing them in or importing them from a file. What I'd have greatly preferred is to be able to upload them directly from Outlook just like services such Plaxo and LinkedIn allow. It would have been a really effective way to upload all of my contacts and share them with others that I choose to invite to my workspace.
Installing the Office Add-In tools is really easy. Simple click the button on the toolbar and follow the prompts. If you're using Windows Vista it is important to read the information it provides at the end. There are updates you can install on Vista that will enhance your Office Live Workspace performance.
After having installed the Add-Ins you will find the Office menus will have new additions in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. These allow you to save and open files directly to and from your Live Workspace respectively.
Fortunately you are able to choose to cache your password in the dialogue presented, otherwise I think the Live Workspace offering may be a little less compelling. I understand the need for security, and also that being prompted for a password constantly is a small price to pay for being secure, but let's not pretend it would not be annoying :)
Finally you will be presented with a dialogue allowing you to open or save files to your workspace. In the example below I've chosen to open a document. You will see how the workspace appears in the open dialogue and how similar it appears in that dialogue to the actual site I've shown earlier in this post.
If you select a document and choose to share it by choosing the appropriate option on the toolbar, as indicated below, you will then receive a screen allowing you to specify the various option for sharing.
The screen the follows has an extensive number of options. The best thing you can do is experiment with these. In a nutshell, you can choose people who get to edit the document, Editors, and people who can view the document i.e. Viewers. You can either type in the email addresses, or you can choose them from a list if you've added them to your Windows Live Address Book. I would have enjoyed better integration with my local Outlook client as well, because even as a home or small/home business user I'm more likely to store all my contact information there for synchronization with my phone and integration with other Web 2.0 services I may use. Still I think this is a significant start in the right direction.
There are also some other compelling functions in the Share Documents screen. You are able to save versions of your document and recall them. This allows users to collaborate with the worries inherent in trying to recover previous version that email collaboration or direct access to a file share often presents.
You can also open a comments pane and make remarks about the current version of the document without having to place them within the document.
Sharing your screen requires the installation of Microsoft SharedView beta. It is only 3.2MB in size, and as such could hardly be considered to be an onerous download even for Internet bandwidth geographies such as mine. SharedView allows up to 15 people in different location to see what's on your screen. Naturally all of those people will require a Microsoft Live ID to access the environment.
The SharedView functionality will be relatively familiar to those who have used Microsoft LiveMeeting before. It does has some differences, especially in that up to 15 people can participate at once. You can either run SharedView from the Start bar in Windows or you can invoke it directly from within your Workspace by selecting Share Screen from the Share button on the toolbar. When SharedView is run, the desktop real estate and OS window area is reduced and a toolbar is place at the top of the screen.
It provides some interesting functionality over and above those you would expect such as being able to invite participants and block people from contacting you. The interesting functionality includes being able to provide handouts, so you can ensure people have the right materials before collaborating. These handouts can essentially be any type of file, and as such SharedView smartly reminds users to respect copyrights, but does so without the usual nagging application modal dialogue boxes we're used to. The share button allows you to share just about any application, not just Live Workspaces. All in all it's pretty intuitive and appears to work well enough.
I did notice a screen flicker followed by a rather familiar task bar notification, but that's probably a small price to pay for the functionality.
All in all, this offering from Microsoft is simple to use and a far more effective way of sharing documents with others than the usual browse and upload functionality provided by so many sites. It is compelling for me because it is so tightly integrated with Microsoft Office and also because it uses Live ID's that are quite ubiquitous in the world I inhabit.