As interesting as what's in the next version of Microsoft's Office are Microsoft's distribution plans for getting its coming productivity software and services in the hands of more potential users.
Reports are circulating that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will take the public wraps off Microsoft's next version of its Office suite and services, known collectively as the Office 15 wave, on July 16. While select testers have had their hands on private builds of these products for several months, there's been little concrete information on when and how Microsoft plans to make final versions available of Office 2013 (the expected final name of the Office 15 client); the complementary Exchange, SharePoint and Lync servers; and Office 365, the Microsoft-hosted cloud version of these servers.
At Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto this past week, many partners were expecting news about the next milestone for Office 15 -- the one and only promised public beta. But there was no mention during the keynotes or public sessions about the timing for the beta (at least as far as I heard).
There was, however, a first-time public mention of something called the Office 365 Fully Packaged Product (FPP), during a keynote address for small/mid-size business partners at the show. (Thanks to Guy Gregory of The Final Step for the heads-up.) Another Microsoft partner corroborated this FPP mention.
Office 365 FPP sounds like it will be a new way for Microsoft to push Office 365, its Google Apps competitor, at retail. From what I've heard from partners, this new FPP "card" would be very much like the Xbox Live Points cards that are sold by Amazon, Walmart, Sam's Club and other big retailers. FPP would be a pre-paid Office 365 offering and the first time Microsoft will attempt using the retail channel to push its cloud app suite.
I've asked Microsoft for more details on Office 365 FPP, but have received no word back so far.
It's worth noting that Microsoft experiments with new Office distribution channels with each new release. With Office 2010, Microsoft added a new Starter Edition of Office -- which was a trimmed-down version of Word and Excel that PC makers could preload on new PCs (the way some of them used to preload Microsoft Works). Microsoft is doing away with Office Starter Edition, however, as of this summer.
With Office 2010, Microsoft also introduced an Office product key-card, sold at major retailers, as another distribution option. (This sounds like the precursor to FPP, except that FPP will be a card for Office 365, not the Office client.) Microsoft also introduced Click-to-Run -- a way to stream Office 2010 so users can get up and running more quickly -- and Office to Go, a USB-stick Office Starter option similar to Windows to Go. Microsoft also introduced Office Web Apps, the Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, as part of its Office 2010 release.
Meanwhile, back to timing for the Office 15/Office 2013 wave.
Microsoft officials said in late January 2012 that the public beta of Office client, servers and services would be available "this summer." I've heard for the past month-plus that July was the planned release timeframe for this beta.
If Office 2013 follows the same development cadence as Office 2010, the current version, there could be five months between the public beta and the release to manufacturing (RTM) of the product -- plus another few months until the product is made generally available. Microsoft delivered the Office 2010 public beta in November 2009. The product was released to manufacturing in April 2010 and made generally available in June 2010.
That would mean Office 2013 is likely to RTM by the end of this calendar year, which jibes with previous rumors have pegged Microsoft's RTM target for Office 2013 on or around November 2012.
Earlier this year, I posted a Microsoft roadmap that showed Office 15 being generally available in early 2013. At this week's partner conference, several of my contacts told me they have heard that the Office 15 wave -- the Office 2013 client, servers and newest version of Office 365 services -- are now looking like they may not be generally available until May 2013. (Volume licensees and MSDN/TechNet users would likely get the final bits closer to the RTM date, as usual, I'd think.) May seems surprisingly late to me -- especially if Office 15 does RTM late this year -- but that was the word on the Toronto streets this week....
Microsoft officials are not verifying any information about Office 15 public beta or final release timing or distribution plans at this point in time. And before you ask, I have no idea whether Microsoft will be sharing more information soon about Office 2013 RT (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for Windows RT ARM-based tablets and PCs) and/or the rumored Office for iPad suite.