Microsoft Inc announced the launch of its beta Office Live Workspace on Monday, marking the software package's debut in the bustling arena of web-based programs.

The service provides what Microsoft refers to as a secure online workspace where Office users can upload Word, PowerPoint, Excel or PDF files directly from Office applications and then access those files freely over the Internet.

Office Live Workspace was first announced on October 1 when Microsoft began registering customers who wanted to test the software. As of today, the beta service is available to those users.

Kirk Gregersen, Office Director of Consumer and Small Business Product Management said it' one of the first integrated web-based sharing and collaboration services designed for Office users.

Office Live Workspace is an example of what Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie refer to as our software plus services approach, Gregersen said.

Microsoft, however, is not the first to enter the Web-based collaborative applications field. Google is currently the largest rival with Google Docs and Google Apps which allow users to access and share Microsoft Office files on the web.

There are some major features found in Google Apps that are not found in Workspace, including e-mail, presentations and Web hosting.

Microsoft is hitting back by adding new features to distinguish itself. Workspace allows users the option to organize events , share to-do lists, timelines, budgets and map directions. Unlike competitors, Workspace users can access the service from within the Microsoft Office desktop software.

The beta version is also being tested at several universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Washington, and Vanderbilt. Although the beta has been made available to a select few, Microsoft has not yet publicly announced a final release date for the service.

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