Office Online: Getting to Know the Free, Lightweight Version of Office 365

Word processors, spreadsheet applications and presentation software were once tools that everyone accessed strictly from a laptop or desktop. Over time, mobile versions became available, alongside cloud-based equivalents that did not require any locally installed components. Google Drive is a prime example of the latter: It can be accessed from anywhere via virtually any web browser.

Overview of Office Online

Office Online has similar capabilities to Google Drive and Apple iWork, and it supports four core applications:

  • Word, for creating and editing documents
  • Excel, for managing spreadsheets
  • PowerPoint, for handling presentations
  • OneNote, for collecting and sharing notes

Sway and are also part of Office Online, and OneDrive is integrated, too. There are some key advantages to using these tools instead legacy version of these same apps, mainly in terms of cost and usability.


The basic, consumer-facing Office Online suite is free and can be accessed from a browser once you have logged in with a Microsoft account. Additional functionality is available in an enterprise counterpart that is managed through Office 365. With Office 365 or a traditional Office installation in place, it is also possible to seamlessly transition between these different apps without even leaving the current document.


The Online versions of the Office apps have the same interfaces as the desktop equivalents. Anyone who has used the latter should be able to quickly transition to the former. Prominent features such as co-authoring (i.e., real-time collaboration), templates and add-ins are all included in Office Online as well. However, there are some key limitations. For example, Excel Online cannot execute macros, unlike standard Excel.

Advanced capabilities in Office Online

While a major selling point of Office Online is the ease of access to it via the public internet, it can also be implemented as part of an on-premises private cloud. This variant is known as Office Web Apps Server, and it integrates with the Server versions of SharePoint, Exchange and Lync/Skype for Business.

"Office Online can be implemented as part of an on-premises private cloud."

A single Office Web Apps Server farm can serve multiple SharePoint farms. Each SharePoint location serves as the file host, and the browser acts as the client. Office documents are accessible from URLs and Universal Naming Convention locations.

Essentially, the end-user experience is similar to Office Online. The main differences are behind the scenes, where administrators have more control over functionality and how the individual applications are integrated with each other. Setting up Office Web App Servers also requires in-house maintenance of the necessary supporting hardware and software.

Master Office 365 at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers

Office Online can be a useful suite most organization that already rely on Office 365 as one of their primary cloud platforms. At New Horizons, there are courses and certifications available for refining your skills with Office in general and with its individual apps. Learn more by checking out the current listings, and also be sure to explore our webinars page for additional info.

Jul 2017

By: Kayla Tellers