By Stuart Lauchlan
Microsoft recently unveiled its Office 2013 and Office 365 software. Customers will still be able to purchase them on CD, but Microsoft is hoping consumers will get on board with its Cloud version.
"You can still buy software and install it. That will be part of this family of Microsoft products that ships. That's not going away, at least certainly not at this stage in the game", said Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer. "Yet I think the bulk of customers who move with us to Windows 8 and the modern Office will want to move with us with this service-based infrastructure."
So what does that mean in practice? Well, while you can still pay your one-time fee to use Office forever and a day on your desktop PC, you can now also choose to subscribe to Office 365 on a monthly basis (as you can now), but with the added option to purchase a subscription to the Office 2013 desktop application. You can also download Office 365 desktop apps on multiple devices, depending on the subscription scheme to which you sign up.
It's just the latest iteration of Microsoft's "as a Service" mind-set that prevails today - but possibly the most mainstream given that Office made up $22.2 billion of Microsoft's 2011 revenue, more than any other single Microsoft product, including Windows.
"Your modern Office thinks Cloud First", explained Balmer. "That's what it means to say Office is designed as a service. You can just click and start running Office immediately from the service. Office uses the Cloud to remember what you were doing, where you were, and what your preferences and favorites are; your documents; and how you're working with other people to collaborate on those things. And we need to support that for people in their individual lives, their private lives, in addition to supporting enterprises in their business persona."
Files and content can also be saved to Microsoft's Cloud storage offering SkyDrive and then shared with multiple devices. "SkyDrive is incredibly fundamental to this release of Office â it's where we'll be storing our content in the Cloud", explained Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office Division.
"SkyDrive is a big service â sixty million active users a month, and ten billion documents stored in the Cloud with SkyDrive. With SkyDrive, I can keep track of all kinds of content, documents, music, pictures of my family, and videos. No matter where I am, no matter what device I'm working with, Office in the Cloud with SkyDrive helps me share documents and have access to all the content that I need no matter where I need it."
Of course, there's also a social spin to the new offerings. "We've made social a first-class part of the modern Office", said Balmer. "One of the things that certainly is true is that the way people work today is dramatically different from the way people worked when I started at Microsoft. When I got to Microsoft, one of the things we did that was big to differentiate ourselves in 1980 was to give everybody a private Office.
"I think that's a great concept, but it's not a uniform concept. Certainly, people today work â whether it's the style of their physical office or their virtual office â in much more social and collaborative ways than ever before. And you see that reflected in this wave of Office."
Key to this, added Koenigsbauer, is SharePoint, which handles document management, content management, enterprise search, and workflow. "Like the rest of the Office applications, SharePoint has a new user interface as well, much cleaner, simpler", he stated. "It's a design that's easy and intuitive for people to get access to the tools that they need.
"With SharePoint and social, you can follow, you can keep track of anything, all kinds of different content. I can go ahead and just click and go into all the documents and see the ones that I'm looking at. SharePoint will also suggest documents that I should be following based on the documents themselves and the things that I've followed in the past. It's a great way to make sure I stay connected with what's happening in the organization."
And of course, with Windows 8 just around the corner, Ballmer took pains to pitch the new Office generation as the natural complement to that. "It's a Cloud service and will fully light up when paired with Windows 8", he said.
"In a sense, it feels to a lot like 1995. We have the most vibrant, exciting, new version of Windows in years. We complement it with the most vibrant, exciting new release of Office in years â Office that's designed for the new Windows, Office that's designed for the new world of Cloud service. While individually I think they're quite remarkable, together I think they're quite magical."
A More Impartial View
So much for the hyperbole: what's the view of analysts? "In IDC's view, the improvements in Office will make it a worthwhile upgrade for most organizations", reckons David Bradshaw of IDC. "In any case, you'll almost certainly need to upgrade at some time. Customers with enterprise agreements probably will be able to upgrade for free, but they need to check with their Microsoft account manager if this is going to be the case and, if not, try to change the terms so they can upgrade when they want to.
"Using SkyDrive as the default storage location may be controversial but it is worth considering seriously. Most organizations will have office files scattered across a very wide range of locations on their and their users' computers, and that's not a sensible document management strategy. Also with the premium version, you can decide in which Microsoft Cloud data center your data is stored."
It's all pretty much as expected, adds Phil Codling of TechMarketView. "There are few surprises", he said. "Office 2013 will be more mobile, and it's also going to be more social (following the acquisition of Skype and Yammer) and more touchy, as Microsoft naturally hopes to spur sales of its Surface device and to get Office onto iPads and other tablets.
"Office of course remains the dominant end user productivity suite in the workplace worldwide, with no sign so far of a mass defection to, for example, Google apps. It'll be interesting to see whether that dominance is affected by the march toward bring your own technology (BYOT), as more individuals get the opportunity to choose their own software. Given Office's price point, you can imagine some cost-conscious consumers looking very seriously at robust, compatible alternatives."