Microsoft has begun inviting selected testers to be part of a beta of a new, consumer-focused Office-family product, codenamed "Albany."
The beta invitation for Albany is cryptic, according to testers who received the invite and asked not to be named. Albany will be aimed at home PC users, not business customers, and will include both a software and a services component. The individuals who've been invited into the private, limited beta so far are those who've previously beta-tested Office releases.
Update: I hear some folks who helped Microsoft test Windows Live OneCare all-in-one consumer security/backup service also got invites to the Albany beta.
Some testers with whom I've spoken are betting that Albany could be the next version of Microsoft Works, Microsoft's low-end productivity suite. Works includes an address book, calendar, database, dictionary, PowerPoint Viewer, basic Word and templates.
Microsoft officials said last year that they planned to conduct pilots and beta tests of Microsoft Works 9 SE, an ad-funded, free version of Microsoft Works. Officials would not discuss when and whether the company also planned to release a complementary Microsoft-hosted version of Works -- even though there have been many signs pointing to Microsoft doing such a release.
One tester suggested that Albany, instead, might be a new offering from Microsoft's Office Authoring Services team. Office Authoring Services is in charge of the "authoring" applications that are part of Office -- specifically, Word, OneNote (Microsoft's note-taking app), InfoPath (its electronic forms offering) and Publisher.
Microsoft has been looking for ways to compete with Google Docs that would not require the company to completely Web-ify its Office productivity suite. Office Live Workspace -- the online-collaboration service meant to complement Office, which is still currently in beta -- is one of Microsoft's intended Google Docs competitors. I've argued in the past that at least some of us users want a cheap or free version/subset of Office more than we want a Web-hosted one like Google Docs. Maybe Albany is an answer to those prayers....
The next version of Microsoft's full-fledged Office suite, codenamed Office 14, will include services elements, but it will still be a PC-based, not a Web-based product, according to early Office 14 information.
I asked Microsoft for comment on Albany and was told, via a company spokesperson, that Microsoft has "nothing to share at this time" about it.
Anyone else out there have more clues or guesses about what Albany is? If it is a Software+Service version of Microsoft Works, do you think consumers will be interested in such an offering?