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DLS Review: Live Documents is almost like Office, but for the Web

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I first got word of Live Documents via our trusty tipster, Forboden (Thanks!). And I have to say that it's impressive!

The idea of an online office suite is far from new; Google Docs is the largest player in this market, but of course there's Zoho and Microsoft Office Live. So, what's Live Documents' claim to fame?

Basically, they say that their solution is "more powerful than Microsoft Office" and offers "better collaboration than Google Docs." Those are a couple of hefty statements to make, and I must disagree with one.

Still, the product is certainly powerful. It's Flash only, and it offers several productivity applications. Rather than skim over all three (presentations, word processing, and spreadsheets), I decided to take the spreadsheet application on an extensive tour. I mean, everybody can do word processing, but Web-based spreadsheets are something different altogether. Keep on reading to see the detailed review, with a gazillion (well, more than ten) screenshots.


Like most other Web office suites, Live Documents starts you off with a desktop. This one is decidedly Mac-like, all the way down to the icons and a dock at the bottom (which was off for some reason when I took this screenshot, but it's there, ... honest). By the way, to log onto the system, you don't need to open an account; you can use your Yahoo! or Google account.

I promised that I would focus on the spreadsheets, so let's jump right to document creation. This is decidedly different than any other application that I know of. With most applications (Web or otherwise), creating a new document is pretty much the easiest thing you can do. File > New, and bam, you find yourself staring at a blank screen (or spreadsheet). That's not the case here! Live Documents makes you go through a three-step Wizard for every new document you wish to create. First you have to select the file name and type (Presentation, Spreadsheet, or Document). Then, you have to pick collaborators (which don't necessarily have to be registered with the service; that's neat). Then, you're given the chance to feed in some metadata, such as the title, description, language, and tags for the document. After all of that, you finally get to your document. Most of the parameters are optional, and you can hit Finish at any point, but that's still a fairly tedious process.

Oh, and speaking of collaboration, Live Documents says that it lets you collaborate with anyone, in real-time, on your documents. That's kind of what Google Wave (RIP) used to do, and it's what Google Docs still does. I didn't get a chance to test this, but they boast some powerful functionality, which includes fine-grained permission management that is supposedly more powerful than Google's.

Alright, let's move on now! We're finally in our spreadsheet, and this is what it looks like:

As you can see, there's a very Ribbon-esque combined toolbar/menu control at the top of the document, but it doesn't minimize to a slim bar like the Office one does. Other than that, it's your standard spreadsheet fare. One thing I'd like to note is that they've got support for Named Ranges; you can see the box to the right of the formula bar (right under the menu). That's a very important feature for power users, and it can make your formulas far less cryptic (since you'll be referring to legible variable names instead of cell adresses). That's nice, and that's just one powerful Office feature that they bring to the table.

Now, let's talk about one feature that Live Documents has, which MS Office doesn't have: Spark Lines/Charts. Sparklines are basically in-cell graphs. They're tiny line, bar, or dot charts that fit into one single cell and convey a whole bunch of visual information very quickly. They can be very powerful tools. There is an Office add-on for sparklines, and it's even free, but I could never get it to work very well for me. Here, it comes right out of the box, and it works effortlessly. That's a really cool feature, and it really is "more powerful than MS Office" in this one particular area.

By the way, the one claim that I take issue with is "more powerful than MS Office." Call me a fanboy, but no office application that I know of is more powerful than MS Office. For starters, there's VBA, and I have done some really awesome things with VBA, and I've done them very easily. This thing doesn't even come close. The keyboard shortcuts are a major weakness as well. Even basic stuff like pressing F2 for changing cell contents doesn't work, and you can't remap hotkeys at all. So, ... while I accept that the collaboration capabilities may be better than those of Google Docs, the "more powerful than Office" claim is absolutely bogus. That's a poor marketing choice if you ask me; this product really is very powerful, and positioning it next to Office does more harm than good for the product's image.

Okay, we're moving on now! On the subject of collaboration, there's also a collaborative TODO feature. The list is empty because I had no one to play with, but basically, you can create tasks that are related to the current document and assign them to your colleagues. This can be very handy for formulating large documents in the word processor. For instance, when you're working with RFPs or other industry-specific documents, each person may take charge of one section, but it still has to read as one document. So, that's a great collaboration tool.

There's an incremental keyboard! Do you remember Clippy? Seriously though, this is a neat feature. It used to be on by default with Office, and it annoyed the hell out of me (very irritating UI back at that time). I think they toned it down or completely eliminated it. Anyway, Live Documents has it. You get easy clipboard history, so you can easily paste whatever you copied during your session, even if you've since copied other things.

Okay, here's a great feature: conditional formatting. If I could pick one Microsoft Excel feature as my favorite, this would be it. Conditional formatting is awesome! I use it all the time, and Google Docs doesn't have anything like it. Live Documents' conditional formatting is almost as powerful as Excel's; you get data bars, icon sets, color scales, plus a new one that Office doesn't have called "data pie." This is very neat stuff!

Another feature right out of Google's book is Forms, which you can integrate into your spreadsheet. Again, this one is better than Google's. There's a form builder (the "Layout" tab), which is very detailed and seems to give you better control over your form. I haven't gone through the whole process, so I can't tell you how well the end product works, but the creation process is certainly more powerful.

Like Google Docs, your document is constantly autosaved. But again, Live Documents one-ups Google with the "Rollback Point" feature. This one is kind of similar to how you can save a specific point in time in EtherPad, and then you can "rewind" to that specific point. It's a "milestone version" of your document, in other words.

Another interesting feature that I was unable to test was Funky document views. You can view your document as a map (and, I guess, see where each collaborator comes from? That could be useful for forms), a heat map, or a calendar. The "heat map" view, I am guessing, would show you the most frequently-updated cells in a document that has multiple collaborators. As I said, I was unable to test these, so I may be completely off base, but they certainly seem promising for people doing actual collaborative work.

This is another feature from Excel's book: limiting a cell to a "Pick list" so that you get a drop-down box with only the permitted values. This is a direct functional copy, and it gives you the exact same level of control as Excel. You can get the list from a range of cells, or you can directly specify criteria.

This is a tiny in-cell widget called a "value scroller." Once you enable it, all cells that contain numbers can get a little pop-up box with scroller control. It's actually kind of irritating. That must be why it's off by default.

The last dialog that I'd like to show you is another powerful feature: Data validation. As you can see, once again, this provides all of the power of Excel with the same exact interface. You can validate cell values as whole numbers, verify by data type (number, date/time, boolean, or string - Excel doesn't have this), provide a range of cells containing permitted values, or use one of several other validation methods.

This is just one application (out of three) in the suite, and I haven't begun to scratch the surface yet. There are workflow management features, document statistics, sharing features, and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven't touched on. This is one powerful product, and the Free version is quite nice. If you have no Flash issues, I highly recommend checking it out.

One last note: Microsoft Office 2010 now includes something called Groove, which is supposed to enable some pretty kick-ass collaboration. I haven't had anyone to test it with, so anything that I said about (the lack of) collaboration options in Office doesn't include what Groove brings to the table. It may quite possibly be a game changer, but so far I haven't seen much excitement about it.

Tags: documents, office, review, spreadsheets

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