Two years ago we introduced Office Web Apps – browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. They appeared in a number of places – for example, you could work directly with them in the cloud, using SkyDrive. And they also ran on SharePoint servers, so that you could be opening and editing documents directly in SharePoint, without having to download them to your machine first. And even without needing a copy of Office installed on your computer.

Education users have started using them, and they helped create new ways of using, sharing and collaborating on Office documents. For example, a teacher could publish a homework assignment on SkyDrive, and students could edit it individually or collaboratively on their home computer – whether or not they had Office installed on their home computer. And it made it very easy to publish, review and share documents on the school SharePoint (great for working on policy documents and other internal documents).

But there were some scenarios that it still didn't solve. For example, schools are typically very sensitive to putting information in the public cloud. So if IT blocked access to SkyDrive, then that stops teachers sharing files easily for students to access from home.

Jumps on soapbox temporarily: I actually think IT are sometimes too sensitive. What's the real risk of putting a homework assignment worksheet in the cloud where users can even be asked to login to get it. In fact, what's wrong with just putting it on a publicly available website? Why do my children have to login to the school network to get their homework assignment, which they can't access from home? Can't it just be put on the website in a folder that anybody can access? Are teachers worried about other teachers borrowing their work? It doesn't contain any sensitive data or student names or anything other than a standard homework assignment.
Oops, I'd better jump off my soapbox and return to where I was!

The other scenario that it didn't cater for is where people want to access files that aren't stored on SharePoint. For example, if you're using a Learning Management System which isn't SharePoint integrated – like Moodle – then users have to download files to their local computer before they are able to open them.

Office Web Apps Server becomes a standalone product

I've just read news from the Office team that with the new version of Office, the Office Web Apps will now run on a standalone Office Web Apps Server, rather than being installed on each SharePoint server. For today's typical setups, it means that you don't need to upgrade lots of different servers every time there's a new release of Office Web Apps – instead you have a single configuration of Office Web Apps that you manage in one go (even if it's physically setup on a number of Office Web Apps Servers or virtual servers).

Nick Simons, a Senior Program Manager for Office Web Apps, has written a fully detailed post Introducing Office Web Apps Server, explaining the technical changes that are going to happen, what's now possible, and how it simplifies the management of Office Web Apps.

Office Web Apps Server in education

Office Web Apps Server architectureReading it, it occurred to me that it is especially useful in education for a couple of scenarios (especially when you look at the labelling of the black box on the diagram to the right, from Nick's blog post, 'Open from URL'):

  • Even if you're not using cloud services (like Office 365 for education) and you haven't deployed SharePoint for all students, you could still provide access for your students to Office Web Apps for use with Lync or Exchange (for example, to allow them to open Office documents within the mail system).
  • If you're using a Learning Management System (LMS) that isn't linked to SharePoint, you could make some technical changes to allow your users to open documents directly in Office Web Apps from within your LMS. For example:
    • Wouldn't it be great to open a Word document directly from a Moodle course folder, in a web browser, without having to have Office installed on every machine (good for students on their home computer or even on their phone
    • How about students and teachers being able to do the same in the Victoria Ultranet?

I know there will be a bunch of technical things to do to make this kind of thing possible, but the idea of having a separate Office Web Apps Server in the new Office makes it realistic – especially where people don't want to have anything stored in the cloud, or they want to glue together different technology to make life easier for students.

Learn MoreRead the blog post from the Office team "Introducing Office Web Apps Server"