Microsoft readies 'Albany' subscription trial for consumers

Microsoft is set to start testing privately a consumer Software + Service bundle code-named "Albany," an all-in-one bundle of Office Home and Student, Windows Live OneCare, Office Live Workspace and various Windows Live services.

Microsoft is set to start testing privately a consumer Software + Service bundle code-named "Albany," an all-in-one bundle of Office Home and Student, Windows Live OneCare, Office Live Workspace and various Windows Live services.

Microsoft began signing up testers for Albany in March. Earlier this week, Microsoft sent a note to potential Albany testers, informing them that they would hear soon whether they'd been selected to participate and, once they had gotten the nod, to download the Albany bits from Microsoft's private Connect site. On April 18, Microsoft acknowledged that the Albany beta was about to begin.

Microsoft plans to deliver the Albany test builds to "thousands" of beta participants and to deliver the final version of the product before the end of this calendar year, said Bryson Gordon, group product manager of Microsoft's Office Consumer and Small Business Group.

Albany consists of 2007 version of Office Home and Student; Office Live Workspace, Microsoft's collaboration-service complement to Office; Windows Live OneCare, Microsoft's consumer security/backup service; and three Windows Live services -- Live Mail, Live messenger and Photo Gallery. The bundle will be delivered via a single installer. When Microsoft releases new versions of any of these software or service components, Albany users will get the latest versions pushed to them automatically for as long as they are paying for the Albany subscription.

If and when Albany users cut their subscriptions, they won't lose their data, said Gordon. They will be able to go out and buy a copy of Office and still access their documents and data, he said.

Gordon said Albany -- which was known inside Microsoft as "ValueBox" -- is aimed at consumers. It is not aimed at small business users "at this point," Gordon said, hinting that Microsoft might have its sights set on a similar bundle for that segment.

Microsoft isn't yet talking about Albany pricing. Gordon wouldn't comment on Albany's distribution model -- whether Microsoft will attempt to get PC makers to include Albany links and/or components on new PCs. If Microsoft follows the same course it has taken with OneCare, it also might make a box version of Albany available in retail stores.

Microsoft is planning to continue to sell Office Home and Student and OneCare as standalone products/services. It also is continuing to offer its low-end productivity package, Microsoft Works (both paid and an ad-supported version). Microsoft still hasn't offered any more information on if/when it also might offer a hosted version of Microsoft Works -- an offering officials have been hinting was on the docket for the past couple of years.

Microsoft is not (at least publicly) positioning Albany as a competitor to Google Docs, Google's Web-based productivity offering. But it sure seems to me that Microsoft is targeting the same group -- consumers, students and possibly businesses, at some point -- with Albany. I wonder when Google will add a security/backup service to Google Docs....