Microsoft's Office 'Gemini': Windows Blue's twin

The Windows team isn't the only one 'reimagining' how to build and deliver future versions of its core product. The Office unit is, too.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Windows Blue, Windows Server Blue, Windows Phone Blue, Windows Services Blue. The one thing missing from this list of next-generation Microsoft releases is a Blue version of Office. Is there one?


There is. But it's not codenamed Blue. It's codenamed "Gemini."

Gemini is a wave of Office releases coming over the next two years, according to my sources. Wave one, which will be aligned with Windows Blue, will be updated versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which should be out this fall, I am hearing. 

Will these wave-one apps be the full Metro-Style/Windows Store versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, plus a second upate to the already Metro-ized OneNote? I am not 100 percent sure, but I'm thinking this will be the case. If so, will these updated apps include only a subset of the existing feature set of the Win32 versions, rather than every single feature available in the desktop versions? Again, I don't know, but given some recent hints by Office management, I would think it might be a subset.

So far, Microsoft has released only two Metro-Style members of its Office app suite: OneNote and Lync. The other just-released Office 2013 apps are all still Win32 apps that run in the Desktop on Windows 8 and Windows RT. However, as one would expect, the Office team is continuing work that began several years ago to build Metro versions of all the Office apps.

But Gemini is more than just the next, Metrofied version of the core Office apps. In the same way that the Windows and Windows Server teams are having to rethink all their development tools, processes and procedures in order to deliver annual (instead of every-three-year) versions of Windows, going forward, the Office team is remaking itself, too.

But unlike its Windows sibling, Office is refocusing itself from being an organization that builds and sells Windows apps, to one that builds apps and services that run on multiple, heterogeneous platforms.

The Office team already has moved a bit in this direction, with its ongoing Mac Office work, its Office Web Apps (which run on different operating systems in a handful of browsers), and ports of apps like Lync to iPhone/iPad and Android. (Not to mention the long-rumored Office for iPad release.)

The Office 365 subscription model is at the heart of the second wave of the Gemini strategy. Again, this isn't trivial; it's a big change for the Office division and Microsoft as a whole. Building apps that are designed from the beginning to be backed by services like Office 365 and SkyDrive is a real departure for the team -- and one which is already in progress. (Yes, Microsoft really is serious about that devices and services thing.)

The hoped-for end result of Gemini will be that the Office team will be on a track of delivering regular, more frequent releases of both services and apps.

On the Office 365 front, the Softies already are delivering new features and updates to Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online customers on a quarterly, if not more frequent, basis. When Microsoft introduced Office 365 Home Premium, officials said those who bought into the subscription model should expect more frequent, regular updates, too.

Microsoft officials have declined to say how frequently those not buying into the Office subscription model should expect updates to their Office 2013 and Exchange/SharePoint/Lync on-premises client and servers. But it's worth noting here many business users running their software on-prem don't want more frequent updates. For some, even an annual update of SharePoint, Exchange and/or Lync is one too many. That may be why Microsoft seems to be continuing with its established service-pack model for these products.

When I asked the Office team for comment on Gemini, a spokesperson would only say: "We are always improving Office 365, so the notion of a 'next version' is outdated. That being said, we don’t have any information to share about the next set of updates to Office."

The back story: The MOXification of Office

Even with the Office 2013 release, Office is still not very touch-friendly, as a number of Microsoft watchers have noted. Office 2013 also doesn't use the Windows 8/Windows RT app model or integrate with new conventions like the Charms. But supposedly this wasn't for lack of trying.

Most of the Office team was heads-down on Office 365 and the increasing push toward the subscription model. That was priority one with Office 2013. But there is/was a team inside Office known as Modern Office Experience (MOX) that was working on building a Metro Office for Windows 8. One of my sources said that MOX's first priority was to build a Metro version of OneNote, in conjunction with the OneNote team. MOX also supposedly was charged with building out common components to be used by all the Office teams for their Metro versions of Office.

Once work was underway, the MOX and Office teams realized building Metro-Style/Windows Store apps was going to be a lot tougher than building something like Office Web Apps. One of my sources said that the Office team wanted to build "hybrid Metro" apps, which would have been desktop apps that were allowed to "participate" in the Metro environment, which would have enabled the team to port large amounts of existing Office code over to Windows 8 and Windows RT. But that would have resulted in Metro-Style apps that didn't adhere to all the WinRT/Windows 8 rules and regulations. As a result, that plan was scrapped.

So here we are today with Office2013 apps that include some minor touch modifications running in the Desktop on Windows 8 and Windows RT. Let's see if Gemini wave one remedies this by adding Metro-style versions of the core Office apps to the mix.

Editorial standards