Tips and Tricks from Posey
Why are Office web apps free?
In an attempt to unravel this mystery, taking a look at the history of Microsoft’s free online web applications may help to better understand.
While on vacation, a friend asked me why Microsoft 365 is a paid subscription, and yet Microsoft lets you use its Office web apps for free. My friend went on to say that it seemed particularly disconcerting that web apps were free given that Microsoft incurs development, hosting, and support costs associated with apps.
To the best of my knowledge, Microsoft has never given an official answer as to why Office Web Apps are free. But I can think of several plausible reasons for free apps.
I guess the reason Microsoft continues to provide its Office web apps for free has changed over time. That’s because apps have been around a lot longer than most people probably realize. In fact, Office Web Apps were introduced in 2010 (but have changed names several times over the years).
Initially, Microsoft’s only Office web app was Outlook, and it wasn’t free. It was included with Microsoft Exchange Server, which could only be run on-premises at the time. At the time, Outlook Web App (or OWA as it was so often called) worked in a pinch, but it lacked many features that had become commonplace in Outlook. One of the main design initiatives of the Exchange team at the time was to find a way to improve Outlook Web Access to the point that it was as efficient to use as Outlook.
As technology improved and Microsoft continually made improvements to Outlook Web Apps, the company probably decided to see if it was possible to build web-based versions of its other Office apps as well. I guess these efforts were largely experimental and were designed to test the limits of what could realistically be achieved with a browser. Over time, however, Microsoft’s goals seem to have changed.
One of the things that was happening around the same time was that tech companies were starting to seriously explore the possibilities of cloud computing. It is no coincidence that Microsoft Azure was introduced the same year as Office Web Apps (2010). Of course, back then, Azure barely looked like it looks today. I think everyone, including Microsoft, was still trying to figure out what role the cloud was going to play in the future. That said, it seems logical to assume that Office Web Apps were used for two main purposes.
The first of these goals was to help develop technology that would eventually be implemented in the Azure cloud. The second goal was probably to get everyone used to using browser-based apps. Remember that at the time, the hybrid cloud didn’t really exist. Most tech companies envisioned a world where everyone would simply give up all their on-premises resources and operate solely in the cloud. As such, it’s not entirely unthinkable that Office Web Apps could have been some sort of social conditioning experiment to see whether or not people would really accept browser-based apps.
So what about today? Why does Microsoft continue to make Office Web Apps freely available to anyone who wants to use them? Again, I haven’t heard any official explanation from Microsoft, but I have a few ideas.
I think one of the reasons why Microsoft offers the Office web apps for free is that these apps act like a sort of gateway drug. Even though the Office web apps may fully meet the needs of those who only need the most basic Microsoft Office features, they lack many features of Office 365. As such, Microsoft may be hoping some people will start using Office Web Apps and then adopt Office 365 in the future. This approach is really not that uncommon. Just think of how many other tech companies offer a free consumer edition of their software.
I think another reason Microsoft continues to make Office Web Apps available for free is to make sure they don’t lose market share to Google. After all, Google makes its productivity suite available for free, and if Microsoft didn’t offer something comparable, many Microsoft customers would likely switch to the Google platform.
Finally, the existence of Office Web Apps helps ensure that Office document formats remain an industry standard. It gives non-Office users a way to open Office documents when needed. Microsoft previously offered Office document viewing apps, but those apps had to be downloaded. Being able to use a web app to open a document is much more convenient than having to download a viewer.
Brien Posey is a 20-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of computing topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his ongoing work in computing, Posey has spent the past several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation for flying on a polar mesospheric cloud survey mission. from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his website.