Microsoft Previews Cloud-Friendly Office 2013

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Introducing the customer preview release of Office 2013, Steve Ballmer promoted the idea of “Office as a service”, with all features accessible via SkyDrive

Microsoft has introduced the customer preview release of its Office 2013 productivity suite, which introduces the concept of “Office as a service”, noting that all of its features can be accessed via the cloud storage service SkyDrive.

“This is the first round of Office that was designed from the get-go for Office to be a service,” said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, at a launch event on 16 July in San Francisco.

Cloud-based software

The new Office 2013, along with the cloud-based version of the suite which is called Office 365, are due out at about the same time that the new Windows 8 operating system becomes available in October.

The updated application suite, also known as Office 15, integrates standard Office apps such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook with cloud-based services from companies that Microsoft has recently acquired, including the voice and video calling service Skype, the enterprise social media platform Yammer and Perspective Pixel, a maker of technology for large-screen, touch-enabled displays.

For the first time, Office will also include OneNote for taking notes at meetings and Lync, Microsoft’s unified communications platform. The suite will also work with SharePoint for document sharing.

The new Office will also work with the Windows 8 x86 processor architecture and Windows RT, an ARM processor architecture as well as on Windows Phone 8 smartphones. As such, a user can access the various Office features on a desktop or laptop using a mouse and keyboard or use a touch screen interface on a tablet or smartphone.

People who run Windows 8 on a tablet will be given a stylus that can be used as a pen to annotate documents, to take notes, or mark up a document being edited by a team. The feature is called Inking.

Mobile devices

Ballmer emphasised that the Office user experience will not be diminished on the tablet or smartphone versus the desktop computer.

“You give up nothing of the rich capabilities of Microsoft Office when you embrace the Windows 8 ARM device. That’s not the junior version. That’s the full Office available to you with full capability on this next generation of device,” he said.

The integration of various components of Office is what most appeals to Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, a tech industry analyst firm.

“This is something Microsoft can do that very few other people can do,” Li said. “Point solution competitors like Google, Evernote, Jive and Box have fantastic products. But no one can tie it together in the inimitable way that Microsoft does.”

Reporters at the event were given a loaner Samsung tablet computer running Windows 8 and the new Office suite to try out for a few weeks.

The bulk of the demonstration to reporters was given by Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of the Office Division of Microsoft.

Disappearing Ribbon

New features in Microsoft Word include a Ribbon across the top of a document that slips out of sight when it’s not needed. When the Ribbon was first introduced in Office 2007, some users complained that it was too busy and took up too much real estate on the screen.

Now, the Ribbon can be pulled down from the top of the screen like a window shade and rolls back up again when the cursor is moved back into the body of the document. Ribbon can also be locked into the open position with a click should the user want that. There is also a new semi-circular tool on the screen called Radial, which offers common tools like bold, undo, typefaces, font size and other commands.

While users can save documents they create on their device, “By default, the Office applications will store content in the cloud using our SkyDrive service,” Koenigsbauer said, noting that SkyDrive currently has 60 million users and stores 10 billion documents.

Microsoft has faced competition from vendors trying to break Office’s dominance in the market, particular Google with Google Docs, Gmail and other apps. But analyst Li says nearly everyone who uses Google Docs probably also has Office on their machine. This release of Office should help shore up the suite’s stickiness with customers.

“This is a battle not so much to win other people as to make sure that people who already have Office will stay with it,” she said. “It’s a battle for loyalty.”

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