Microsoft, the old dog, learns some new cloud tricks

The preview release of Office 2013 marks a highly significant change of tack by Microsoft. You can start using it now. Many will.

I’ve always had a policy of never loading up beta copies of Microsoft software. I always wait until the new version is fully beta tested, properly baked into production, and preferably past its first service pack upgrade before I risk it on my computer. Yet I interact in a completely different way with cloud apps; I’ll happily load them up and start trying them out long before the vendor declares them out of beta. So this is something really radical: I’m writing this post in the preview version of Microsoft Office 2013, which I installed on my computer today, just a couple hours after it was unveiled .

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This may be a radical move for me, but it’s an even more radical departure for Microsoft. Over the years, the company’s limp efforts at competing in the online world have provided easy fodder for this blog. Microsoft's on-demand strategy is barely twitching, I wrote in 2005 on learning that its CEO Steve Ballmer thought that a nine-month upgrade cycle was a frequency to aspire to. One of the most popular all-time posts here is a guest post contributed last year by Louis Naugès entitled Google Apps vs Office 365: your choice, which characterized Office 365 as an offering “for companies who do not want to migrate to the cloud and prefer to keep traditional tools, disguised as cloud solutions.” Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post wondering Will Yammer improve SharePoint?, alluding to the absurdity in this day and age of offering social capabilities that customers have to wait months if not years before they can install them.

In that context, delivering Office 2013 as a working preview version that people like me can install and use instantly is a genius move, one that was not expected from Microsoft. At a time when Google Apps, for all its advantages, still has many shortcomings when it comes to serious document editing and remains clunky in how it integrates its various components, this is a counter-strike by Microsoft that is audacious and smart. I’ve read Ed Bott’s write-up and perused his first-look gallery and seen many features that I want to use. Instead of having to wait an age before buying and installing them, the cloud delivery model means I can safely try them out now. At a stroke, Microsoft has cut the delivery cycle for some highly alluring new features by 18 months or more.

The real killer feature for me, though, is the ability to use this cloud-delivered version of Office on up to five different devices – even a machine that I’m temporarily borrowing or renting – and have access to my current work on all of them. For the past 18 months I’ve been using an Evernote-like product called SimpleNote for on-the-go writing, because it allows me to save a half-written draft to the cloud from my PC and then continue to work on it on my iPhone as I travel to a meeting. Office 2013 has a similar capability (although no word yet that I've heard on when the iPhone app comes out), and if it works as seamlessly it will be a major time saver for frequently mobile workers. For Microsoft, it’s also a hugely significant slicing of the umbilical cord that has always tied its software to specific devices. This one enhancement alone demonstrates that Microsoft really is more serious about the cloud than many of us have given it credit for. And I think it signals that Microsoft has realized it must bet its future in the cloud not on Windows but on Office.

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