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First look: Office Live Workspace

First look: Office Live Workspace

Some good collaboration features, but there are problems that still need to be ironed out

There are only two levels of sharing: editor level and viewer level. Anyone to whom you give editor status can edit any document in the workspace; viewers can only view them. Normally, you can only give people editor status on an entire workspace, not to individual documents. However, there is one precreated workspace titled "Documents" that lets you share documents on a document-by-document basis.

The site also has some useful document-control features -- notably, the ability to save multiple versions of documents. If more than 12 hours have passed since you or someone else has revised a document, Office Life Workspace saves it and gives it a version number. You can then view or revert to that previous version at any point. In addition, you can save a version of a document manually as well.

Integration with Microsoft Office

You can view any document online, but you can't edit most of them online. Instead, to edit Office documents that you've created or shared, you'll need Microsoft Office. You can install an add-in that lets Office open, save and create documents to Office Live Workspace.

The add-in is integrated directly into Office. In Office 2007, you'll find a new entry when you click the Office button, pictured nearby, that lets you save directly to any of your workspaces or open documents from any of your workspaces. In earlier versions of Office, the add-in installs as a tool bar.

Here's where Office Live Workspace clearly needs work. You may have problems getting the add-in to work. If you use Windows Vista and Office 2007, for example, you'll need to install a second add-in to make it work properly. With any luck, glitches like this one will be fixed by the time Office Live Workspace gets out of beta.

More troublesome, Office Live Workspace falls seriously short when it comes to integrating files on your hard disk with files online. At best, it's confusing. At worst, you could find yourself working on different versions of the same document without being able to figure out which is the most recent version.

Let's say, for example, you're working on a file on your hard disk. You decide that you'd also like to save a copy on a workspace. Using the add-in, you save it to your workspace. Neither Office Live Workspace nor Office on your computer will tell you that from now on when you work on that file, you're working on the online version, not the one on your local disk. If you make more changes and save the file, it's saved only online, not on your hard disk -- and you won't know it.

Making matters worse, you have no way of knowing whether you're working on the file online or on your local disk. Similarly, if you open up an online document, then save a copy to your hard disk, all future changes will be made to the version on your hard disk, not to the version online. Because of this, it's extremely easy to lose track of where you're working and where the latest version of the file can be found.

That's exactly what happened to me when writing this review. I saved the file, came back a day later, and thought that for some reason all my changes and additions had been lost. Only when I opened the file online did I realize what had happened.

There should be some indication that tells you which file you're working on. Better yet, there should be an option that would automatically save the file both online and on your hard disk.

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