Many lawyers and law firm staff are dedicated users of Microsoft's desktop office suite (as traditionally purchased software or via the high-value Office 365 subscription). However, most are not aware of the completely free web-based version of Office. Although it has been around for a while, Microsoft has until now given it a low profile (under its previous name, Office Web Apps). And that was unfortunate because Office Online has a lot to offer. It is a full cloud-based office suite that is a worthy competitor to the better-known Google Docs.
In February, Microsoft made two name changes to its cloud apps. The cloud-based file storage system previously known as SkyDrive became OneDrive. The cloud-based office suite previously called Office Web Apps became Office Online. Both changes are welcome if they will help Microsoft make these useful cloud products more widely known.
The two services are intertwined in the sense that if you open documents stored in your OneDrive account, they will open by default in Office Online, with the option to open the document in the copy of Word installed on your computer (assuming you have Word installed). Also, if you start with Office Online and create a documents, it will be automatically saved your OneDrive, with the option to save it locally on your computer.
Everything starts on, as you might guess, the Start page. From there you can choose from the online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or OneNote. You can also access other Microsoft cloud services such as Outlook.com email, Calendar, People (a contact list), and OneDrive file storage. I have my Google account syncing with my Microsoft account, so when I go to Calendar or People, I see a very attractive interface displaying the same data I keep in my Google account.
If you select Word Online, you will be asked if you want to create a new blank document, start with one of Microsoft's many online templates, or open one of your recent OneDrive documents. Whichever you select, you will be presented in your web browser with a reasonably full-feature replica of the Microsoft Word interface. From there, you can create basic Word documents and even some more complex ones. It doesn't handle footnotes, although if you open a document in Word Online that already contains footnotes, they will appear in the document. Overall, it is a familiar and useful interface without the feature bloat we often see in the full version of Word.
Of course, Word Online is not the only web-based word processor. Google Docs is better known and more widely used. I think Google's offering has a few more features. However, it lacks the familiar user interface that any user of Word 2007, 2010, or 2013 will find comforting. For a comparision of how Office Online stacks up to both the desktop version of office and the cloud-based Google Docs, read the excellent How-To Geek article here.
If you have a Chromebook or find yourself working on a computer without a functioning copy of Microsoft Office installed, Office Online is a viable alternative. It provides a familiar MS Office interface as well as complete file format compatibility with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. Give it a try!