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Microsoft is encouraging Office PWAs, which could change how you work with apps

Microsoft's Office PWAs are designed to offer all the convenience of Microsoft 365, without the need to install anything.

office app vs office pwa Microsoft
Mark Hachman / IDG

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Recent reports say that Microsoft may be pushing Office PWAs to Windows Insiders without their permission. While we’d hope that practice never goes mainstream, it’s worth learning briefly about what the Office PWAs actually are, and how they can help.

First, here’s what’s happening: Windows Latest reported Wednesday that members of the Windows Insider beta program were being pushed the various Office apps as Progressive Web Apps, or PWAs, without opting in. Remember that Insiders have to specifically opt in to this beta program, and receive new builds as a matter of course. WL also reported that these PWAs were being pushed to a subset of Insiders. In other words, chances are that this won’t happen to you anytime soon. (We've since learned that Microsoft pushed these beyond just Insiders, though that was due to a bug.)

office app vs office pwa Microsoft Mark Hachman / IDG

Chances are that your Windows 10 PC already has an Office app (left). The Office PWA (right) looks a little prettier, with new navigation options along the left-hand pane.

What’s a PWA?

A PWA is, essentially, a webpage saved as an app that can be listed in your Windows 10 Start menu. Microsoft 365 apps (formerly Office 365) can exist either as a dedicated app that runs directly on your PC, or as part of the Office service (aka Office Online) living in the cloud. If you’re like me, you probably go back and forth between online and local apps without thinking about it. I’ll create new benchmark spreadsheets in my local copy of Excel saved on my hard drive, but I have PCWorld’s templates and other spreadsheets saved to an Edge bookmark. My experience with both is essentially the same.

One big advantage of a PWA: Instead of downloading and installing anything, the PWA lives in the cloud. You’ll still need a Microsoft 365 license, but you can be up and running in a second or two.

What Microsoft seems to be doing is pushing these PWAs or webpages down to your PC and placing them alongside the dedicated Office apps already in your Start menu. Yes, that’s unnecessarily confusing. But it does go to show that the two experiences are almost identical.

How to install Microsoft Office PWAs

If you’d like, you can try it yourself: Using Edge, visit Office.com and click the little '+' sign at the edge of the URL bar, next to the tiny star that designates a favorite website. Click it, and the Office PWA will be installed and added to your Start menu. Note that the Office app allows you access to the various Microsoft 365 apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more.

Microsoft word v word PWA Mark Hachman / IDG

While you can see some obvious differences between Microsoft’s 365 Word app (left) and the simplified online application to the right...

If there’s any downside to this, it’s that now you have two Office apps living next to one another, and it’s really difficult to tell one from the other. But there is a good reason to do this.

For one thing, any app that lives in the cloud can be managed by a developer like Microsoft, which can issue patches and updates extremely quickly. Historically, new features that Microsoft announces for Microsoft Office are deployed to the online versions of Office first, then to the version of Microsoft Office that lives on your PC, and later to mobile apps for iOS and Android.

It’s also possible that a PWA may consume fewer computing resources over time than a dedicated app. My quick comparisons of opening a spreadsheet with Excel and the Office PWA didn’t show meaningful differences, however. 

Microsoft excel v excel edited PWA Mark Hachman / IDG

...the Excel experience in the Microsoft 365 app to the left and the online version to the right are very similar. The PWA version simply cleans up the interface somewhat, eliminating the address bar.

Manually installing the PWA version of individual Office apps can also be done by opening a document in say, Word Online, and then using the browser controls to install the app. In Edge, for example, click the "ellipsis" menu to the upper right, then scroll down to Apps. In that menu, click "Install this site as an app".  

Remember how you can open the Word app within Microsoft 365 and see a generic UI, allowing you to load a document or create a new one? It doesn't seem to be possible to install a Word PWA so that that's the first screen you see. Instead, I was able to install the Word PWA as a bookmark to a specific document -- though I was able to exit that document and open a new one.

microsoft word pwa edge Mark Hachman / IDG

If you have a Word document open, navigate through the Edge menu to install it.

Think of the Office PWA as you would your PC’s touchscreen. There’s nothing saying that you have to use a PWA. But they’re a convenient option if it’s simply more convenient to work from a tabbed web interface than a dedicated app. 

There’s one potential problem with a PWA, however: Microsoft’s Office PWAs may not work offline. If your Internet connection goes down, you won’t be able to access the app at all. That’s (hopefully) a rare occurrence. 

So far, Microsoft representatives haven’t responded to a request for comment on whether PWAs will be more heavily emphasized going forward. If Microsoft does do this, however, you should have a better idea of how your virtual workspace may change. 

This story was updated on October 22 with additional information.

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