Is the era of desktop software over? With the general release of Office 2010 this week, Microsoft seems to be sending a mixed message. On the one hand, Office 2010 is the slickest, most feature-rich version of the suite to date. That's a clear challenge to Google, which offers a simpler, web-based alternative to Office in the form of Google Docs. On the other hand, the simultaneous release of the Office 2010 Web Apps seems to vindicate Google's strategy by duplicating Office functionality on the web. So which is it?

My first impression of the prerelease versions of the Office Web Apps was that they were remarkably polished. Office documents displayed flawlessly, with fidelity unmatched by any web-based competitor. Many features were missing however, most notably the ability to edit documents, so my ultimate assessment was reserved. Now that Office 2010 has shipped, I thought it high time to revisit the suite to see what Microsoft has actually delivered. Are the Office Web Apps a true competitor to Google Docs, a valuable addition to the Office product family, or merely a web-based novelty?

Office Web Apps: Broad platform and browser support

 First off, the Office Web Apps' browser support is to be commended. Officially Microsoft is supporting only recent versions of Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, but in practice most standards-compliant browsers appear to work equally well (including Google Chrome). Gone, seemingly, are the days when Microsoft tried to shoehorn customers into IE with ActiveX controls and nonstandard web features.

That's not to say Microsoft's offering is completely platform-agnostic, however. The Web Apps resemble Microsoft Office, but it's the Windows version of Office 2010, complete with the Ribbon interface. Users of the free Web Apps access their files through SkyDrive, Microsoft's online storage service, which presents files and folders using Windows-like fonts and icons. Business users access files via SharePoint Server 2010. Where the Google Docs UI is lean, spare and generic, the Office Web Apps give enough gentle nudges toward Windows that Mac OS X users, in particular, may be put off.

Since the Web Apps feel most natural on Windows, I did most of my testing on Windows 7 running IE8, with Silverlight installed. Silverlight is not required, but it improves font rendering and enhances some features, such as file uploading. I also installed Office 2010 to test its integration with the Web Apps.

I chose to test the free, consumer version of the Web Apps because that version will have the broadest appeal. Microsoft will also offer two versions for business customers: a SaaS edition hosted on Microsoft's servers, and an on-premise rendition that comes bundled with site licences of Office 2010. The core functionality of all three is identical, but both business versions offer additional collaboration features through integration with SharePoint 2010.