Saturday, July 4, 2009

Free Collaborative Platforms for Teachers: Part 2 - Office Live Workspace

I've tried out Microsoft's Office Live Workspace, a component of the Office Live platform which includes the ability to create a professional web presence, have an online storage and sharing space, and real-time online collaboration. Office Live Workspace is Microsoft's response to Google docs and all the other online office apps, and it almost pains me to say that part of me likes it. Office Live Workspace is a hosted version of Sharepoint, Microsoft's massive enterprise CMS, with a slimmed-down Office suite (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint) and the required Outlook activities.

The first time you log into your Workspace account you're welcomed by a very beautifully designed UI (usability aside), and an easy to follow three step chart on getting started with Office Live Workspace.

Right off the mark, step one introduces a really nice feature: templates which provide packaged workspaces (e.g. Class Workspace, Essay Workspace, Study Group Workspace, School Workspace, etc.) containing a fulsome array of document types to help you complete the project at hand. I selected the Study Group Workspace - manage your study group using meeting notes, an event list, a report template, and more, and had access to notes, lists (very similar to simple excel functions), a Word report template, and the ability to add contact lists and Excel, PowerPoint, or generic Word docs. For some this may be too packaged, too "templated", making the openness of Google docs more attractive, but Office Live does provide a bit of both. Plus, you can simply bypass the workspace option and directly create and share a blank document, or multiple documents if you install Microsoft Sliverlight.

The sheer appeal of the page and the familiarity of the tools (after all, most of us still use MS Office on our desktop), almost made me want to make this platform work for me...but then started the process of attempting to share. We can share Workspaces and assign others as editors or viewers, but while Google Docs simply creates a share with the contact I've listed, no questions asked or installs necessary, Office Live Workspace required a number of steps to force the share:
And for any of this to work users must have MS Office installed locally for docs to open.

Version control is surprisingly cumbersome. Version control is managed by both version and activity options which capture all the information needed to monitor versioning, and only the owner of the workspace / document has the ability to manage version history. but I had to think about this, it wasn't immediately clear to me; perhaps instant recognition of a process when it comes to version control is aiming too high, but meeting us halfway with a slightly more standardized process would help users.

Of note, the most recent Office Live Update 1.4 lets you share a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document directly from the application itself, no need to access the Workspace environment.

The "real time" of share screen in Workspace is, again, very attractive and appealing, but the process of sharing the screen is more involved than it should be. But in the end you can share your workspace with an invited user, give them control / access, and all you have to do to regain control of the document / workspace is to click on it.

User Level: Windows Fans, Post-Secondary
While there is a high level of familiarity with the applications offered by Office Live Workspace, the "involved" and slightly cumbersome road to actual, real-time collaboration on this platform makes me wonder whom exactly would want to use this over Google?!? This platform, and all its tools ,are probably best suited to a college / university group that's working on a detailed report / essay, and they need access to traditional, richer 'desktop' document formatting features.

Product Features: Poor to Fair
The products are great, the platform's a clunker. Office Live Workspace will only resonate with Microsoft junkies, with those who get more out of discovering the platform's idiosyncracies than doing the actual work - that's probably why the number of people who make use of Google Docs completely dwarfs the number of Office Live Workspace users.

Any Complaints?
It's funny, we have a list of questions we check off whenever we evaluate a new tool or site, e.g. a sample:
  • Ease of Use / Usability
  • Platform Reliability
  • Support and Investment for Development
  • User Pool and Reach
  • Future Growth Plans
  • Security
  • Product Options
  • Product Integration
  • Account Richness and Reach
The irony with Office Live Workspace is that a number of our responses to these questions are positive. However, if the first question - Ease of Use / Usability - turns out to convey a negative, this can really eliminate or seriously dent any of the other very positive components which builds and runs a platform. And as an aside, if you've ever done any user testing it's not surprising that Usability can, on it's own, turn a very rich, high-end site or tool into useless binary. If you're ever developing your own site or tool always try to go through the full-round of testing from paper-prototype onwards...but that's another blog.