What’s the Difference: Microsoft Excel Online vs Excel Desktop

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Excel for the Web looks a lot like the Excel desktop application. However, there are some differences that you should be aware of. For example, not all file formats are supported, and some features may work differently from the desktop application. This article explains these differences.

Microsoft Office Excel is one of the world’s most popular data analysis tools. With Excel, you can enter numbers into a spreadsheet and use functions to manipulate and analyze them. In addition to analyzing numbers, Excel is often used to track and manage other data, such as customers. In many organizations, Excel has become a database-based application that stores all kinds of information.

Excel is called a fat client because it runs from your local computer. If you click on Start→All Programs, navigate to your desktop applications and click Excel to launch the program. Excel will then run on your computer.

A web application, on the other hand, runs on a computer in a data centre that you access over the Internet. If you use Hotmail for email or if you browse a web page, you are using a web application. A web application is accessed by a web browser, which is a program installed on your computer.

Not Supported File Formats in Excel for the Web

  • Excel workbook files (.xlsx)
  • Excel files 97-2003 (.xls).
  • Note When you open this file format, Excel for the Web converts it to a newer .xlsx file. You can still download the original by going to File > About > Previous Versions.
  • Excel binary file (.xlsb)
  • OpenDocument spreadsheet file (.ods)
  • Workbook with Excel macros (.xlsm)
  • A workbook of this format can be opened, but macros are not executed in a browser window.

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Workbooks in other formats, such as .csv, are generally not supported in Excel for the Web.

Completely Missing Menus on Microsoft Excel Online

While Microsoft Excel offers online the basic menus you find in Excel for the office, there are actually entire menus that are completely absent.

These menus include:

  • Draw: Use the mouse to draw lines or select areas.
  • Layout: apply themes, margins, alignment, print areas and align or organize objects
  • Chronology: Visual representation of events in chronological order on a time scale – useful for things like project calendars.
  • Developers: adding macros or VBA code to a spreadsheet

In addition, it is not possible to add add add-ins or additional menus to Microsoft Excel online because the File menu does not have the “Options” option, whereas you would normally have to go to Excel for the desktop to add them.

Again, this is not surprising for an online application. However, ask yourself if you like to add many extra features to Excel by using add-ons or by activating some of the non-standard menus available in Excel for the desktop.


Given all the basic functionality available online in Microsoft Excel, compared to anything missing from the desktop version of Excel, the online version may not be sufficient. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. If you generally only use Excel for the most common purposes, such as creating spreadsheets or organizing, you’ll find everything you need in Microsoft Excel Online. If you need to consult external sources, or if you use a lot of VBA coding or macros, you should stick to using Excel for the desktop app.


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