Microsoft's new Office: The cloud finally takes center stage

A public preview of Microsoft's coming Office 2013 client is out today. But Office 365 and SkyDrive are the real stars of the new Office show.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

When Microsoft was readying its Office 2010 suite, many wondered whether the company would follow Google down the cloud-first path. As Office 2010 users know, that didn't end up happening.

But with the coming release of Office, codenamed Office 15, Microsoft finally is moving a lot of its focus to the cloud.



(Word 2013 Preview start screen, courtesy of Microsoft. Click on image above to enlarge.)
A Consumer Customer Preview (aka public beta) of the Office 2013 client  -- plus previews of a bunch of new Office service plans -- is set to be available for download as of July 16 starting around noon PT, the same time as a San Francisco media event focused on the new Office kicks off.

This new focus does not mean Microsoft is giving up on locally installed versions of Office. With the coming Office release, there still will some unknown number of different Office 2013 SKUs available for some still-unknown prices. The one version we do know about for sure, the Office Professional Plus 2013 release available to any/all interested testers as of today, is a collection of locally installable Office apps that will be sold on a subscription basis, the same way that Microsoft offers an Office 2010 Professional Plus option for an annual "rental" fee.

However, make no mistake: With the coming version of Office, the centerpiece will be the cloud. In this case, the "cloud" means Office 365, which is the Microsoft-hosted back-end suite of SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, Lync Online and, with this coming new release, Project Online (which runs on top of SharePoint Online). It also means SkyDrive, its personal-cloud storage service. Additionally, it means support for roaming settings, which can move with users ac ross devices, as well as the ability to stream the Office bits to new PCs (and remove them later) using an updated version of the current Click-to-Run distribution mechanism that will be known as "Office on Demand."
Microsoft is adding a new consumer-focused offering that primarily relies on SkyDrive as its cloud component (though it will also make use of SharePoint Online if and when that is available). Here are the four plans that Microsoft is opening up to testers as of today:
Office 365 Home Premium Preview: Allows users to install one licensed copy of Office on up to five PCs and get an additional 20 GB of online storage on SkyDrive, which becomes the default for saving and sharing documents online. Home Premium includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher. Users also will be able to save documents locally if they so prefer, or to SharePoint if it is available. Also included in this SKU: 60 minutes of Skype credit per month to call mobile or landline phones with Skype
Office 365 Small Business Premium Preview: Aimed at businesses with up to 10 employees. Each user can install Office, getting the same applications that are included in Office 365 ProPlus -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, ncAccess, Publisher, InfoPath and Lync -- on up to five PCs per user. This version is hosted by Microsoft
Office 365 ProPlus Preview: Subscription-based locally installable version of Office that enables users to reate up to 25 user accounts, with five installations of Office 365 ProPlus per user. It includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, Publisher, InfoPath and Lync.
Office 365 Enterprise Preview: Combines Office 365 ProPlus with Exchange Online, including archiving and legal hold to fully manage email in the cloud. It also includes SharePoint Online to manage and share documents and Lync Online to allow you to conduct meetings and collaborate across remote teams and team members.
According to the Softies, the final version of the new Office 365, when available, will include support for Office for Mac, too. Microsoft officials still aren't saying when and whether Microsoft also will be making its Office suite and/or an Office 365 subscription plan available on iOS or Android devices, as has been rumored.
During the July 16 unveiling of the new version of Office, Microsoft officials are expected to try to take the focus off the incremental features that the development teams have added to each of the apps in the coming Office suite. Most current Microsoft Office users make use of a very small subset of all of the available features in the product, so PowerPoint Web App now supporting co-authoring -- a new feature Microsoft execs in the past would have touted as a major, upgrade-worthy improvement -- are taking a back seat to bigger-picture messaging this time around.
In addition to the Office team's new cloud-first messaging, officials also are expected to focus heavily during the Office 15 unveiling on Monday on the ways that Office 15 and Windows 8 will work better together. There will likely be lots of touch demos -- especially of two new "immersive" Metro-Style apps that complement the desktop/Win32 versions of the Office 2013 client apps. There will be brand-new Metro-Style, touch-optimized versions of both OneNote and the Lync unified communications client delivered alongside the rest of the regular Office 2013 suite.  (Only the OneNote Metro-Style app is available to testers as of today.)
If you are someone interested in all the tweaks and updates Microsoft is making to each of the apps in the Office 2013 suite, there have been some very extensive leaks about many of those apps. Microsoft made private test builds of its Office 15 client and server apps to a select group of testers as of February of this year.
Microsoft execs are not sharing any timetables today for the likely release to manufacturing or general availability of Office 2013 and the coming Office 365 plans. I continue to hear late fall is the targeted RTM. Microsoft told partners earlier this year the general availability target was early 2013, but some partners said recently that they believed the new general availability target could be May 2013.

Editorial standards