Facebook Enters World of Word Processing

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Facebook: the new entrant to the small-business word-processing wars.

Facebook, the largest social-networking company, and Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) began a fascinating beta test. Branded "Docs," the test service integrates a way-stripped-down version of Microsoft Word think Microsoft Works of old and plunks it into the slew of Facebook applications such as calendering, groups and events.

Microsoft's move with Facebook, just weeks before Microsoft is set to commercially roll out Office 2010, matches Google's (Stock Quote: GOOG) rebuild of its Google Apps suite of Web-based word processing, spreadsheets and other office tools earlier this year. Initially, Facebook's Docs was billed as a consumer-oriented product. And that's certainly true. But I have been on the system for about a week now and chatting with Microsoft representatives about the product. And without question, Facebook's riff on Microsoft raises fascinating opportunities and challenges — for smaller firms.

And it has earned itself a prime spot on the small-business software must-know list.

What you get: Honestly, this is the first Internet-based small-business office-software play from Microsoft that doesn't totally suck.

For those of us who have struggled tracing Microsoft's steps into cloud computing, Docs is impressive. The service runs from a user's existing Facebook account, meaning no traditional, torturous Microsoft software setup. Simply click over to Docs from any old Facebook account and you'll find the traditional Microsoft Word interface baked into a Facebook page. There's no goofy online log-ins or directories to manage, like Microsoft Office Live.

And though only basic features are supported here — editing, styles, spell checker, and simple clip and image tools — all those features run well. Type enters in real time. Layout and control technologies are solid. Particularly when Silverlight, Microsoft's advanced Web coding language, is installed, Docs offers a more sophisticated interface than Google's Apps.

Sharing also couldn't be simpler. Simply pick which Facebook friends can see your documents, and — assuming they have the Docs feature enabled — they can share your works, as well as post, comment and otherwise interface with other Facebook features.

Without question, for small groups — that is small businesses — a properly setup Facebook Docs space could be a fabulously powerful, free work-collaboration space.

It's the freshest idea out of Redmond since the new layout in Office from 2003.

What you don't get: Clearly, and I mean clearly, Microsoft Word a la Facebook won't be as secure, controllable or robust as Office on your desktop.

All this ease of use and simplicity comes at a major cost. Docs is not only completely cloud-based, it's based in what has got to be the least secure environment on the Web: Facebook. Not only are there none of the on-premises computing benefits of Office — content control, security and effective compliance — your business stuff is potentially one click away from a team member sharing it with all their friends, not just work colleagues.

Until security issues are worked out, which they may not, do not be fooled by the comfy Word interface in Facebook's Docs. Unless you are careful, anybody can see it.

Listen up: Keep proprietary data on a server that your business controls.

Bottom line: At last Microsoft has a legitimate cloud contender to Google Apps for small businesses. It has the real potential to be fast free and dead easy to use. So, for sure, take a drive-through as the beta rolls out.

Just move carefully as you test this tool. Security remains the major issue.

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