Microsoft has caught up to a key collaboration feature of Google Docs with its rival Office 365 service: the ability for multiple people to simultaneously edit the same document.
The feature now is available for the Web versions of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document.
"New real-time presence helps you see where your co-authors are working in the document so that you don't create conflicts as you edit," said Microsoft's Amanda Lefebvre in a blog post Wednesday. "Additionally, the new ability to see changes to text and formatting as they happen will help you and your co-authors stay on the same page as your ideas develop and evolve."
The change may sound subtle, but it's a very big deal. Office was born in an era when people stored documents on their PC's hard drives, and it was difficult to keep different drafts in sync. Sharing arrived awkwardly, with people exchanging documents by e-mail. Microsoft's Sharepoint service later added multiperson live editing of a document, but many people still collaborate the old way, and live multiauthor editing was missing from the Web-based Office 365.
Google Docs, in contrast, was born on the Web, where it made a lot more sense to have a single, centrally stored version of a document.
Another page from the Google playbook is continual autosave. Google Docs, like Gmail and some other software like Adobe Lightroom and Apple Final Cut Pro, automatically save changes as people work on projects. "With this update, the Word Web App automatically saves your documents when you make changes, so the next time you're focusing on your report, remembering to hit save can be the last thing on your mind," Microsoft said in a separate blog post.
The changes mark the gradual modernization of the Office franchise, which remains a core part of Microsoft's business. Another part of the change is bringing Office beyond Windows and OS X.
Microsoft also announced some other changes with Office 365:
The Word Web App also now supports find and replace; headers and footers, including page numbers; table styles for more polished formatting; and the ability to insert page breaks.
The Excel Web App has several new features, now letting people drag and drop spreadsheet cells; open spreadsheets with protected sheets; more quickly direct the app to calculate totals and averages; and reorder different sheets within a single spreadsheet.
With the PowerPoint Web App, people now can crop photos and rename files within the editing window.
Microsoft also said it's continuing to work on other promised improvements, including letting Android tablet users edit documents, not just view them.