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Innovation

There's more than one way Microsoft could bring Office to the iPhone

Microsoft execs haven't done the best job articulating the difference in the constantly expanding family of Office versions. The result: Company watchers, partners and customers are having trouble keeping it all straight -- as the current obsession over a Microsoft exec's comment that the company plans to make Office available on the iPhone -- makes all too clear.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor on

Choice is good. But too many choices with too much overlapping functionality isn't a plus.

Microsoft execs haven't done the best job articulating the difference in the constantly expanding family of Office versions. The result: Company watchers, partners and customers are having trouble keeping it all straight -- as the current obsession over a Microsoft exec's comment that the company plans to make Office available on the iPhone -- makes all too clear.

Microsoft actually noted back in October 2008 that it planned to support its forthcoming Webified versions of its Office 14 apps, known as "Office Web Applications," running not just in Internet Explorer, but also in Safari for the Mac and Firefox (on a variety of platforms). Company officials reiterated that cross-browser commitment in February in an interview with News.com.

So was Stephen Elop, the president of Microsoft's Business Division -- whose comments this week at Web 2.0 on Office's planned support for the iPhone set off a chain reaction in the blogging echo chamber --  simply revisiting Microsoft's Office Web Apps strategy yet again? Or was Elop promising that Microsoft might port its Office Mobile suite to non-Windows Mobile phones (which would be big news, if true)? Or could Elop be hinting that Microsoft might Webify its Office for Mac suite, like it's doing with Office 14? Hey, truth can be stranger than fiction....

It's hard to be sure. In fact, it's getting harder and harder to figure out exactly which of Microsoft's Office software, services and software-plus-services offerings are best suited for what.

Here's my attempted breakdown of what Microsoft has said will be coming next on the Office front:

Client: Office 14 is the next release of Office for Windows client machines. It is in alpha test now and expected to hit beta this summer. Final release is expected in the first half of 2010. We don't know yet how many Office 14 SKUs Microsoft will release or what pricing will be. There's also a new version of Office for Mac in the works, too, which will be a follow-on to the Office 2008 release.

Server: SharePoint 14 is the next release of Microsoft's back-end suite of Office servers. It is in alpha test now and expected to hit beta this summer, simultaneously with Office 14 client. The new version is widely expected to add offline support to SharePoint. Final release expected in first half of 2010.

Mobile: Microsoft continues to evolve its Office Mobile suite for mobile phones. The 6.1 release of Office Mobile, which is the most recent one out there, runs on Windows Mobile phones only. Microsoft's mobile strategy du jour seems to be to separate software and services from the base phone platform and sell these offerings (like My Phone, Zune services, Windows Live for Mobile, and maybe even Office Mobile) for a variety of phone platforms. Microsoft hasn't committed to a date, a feature set or any other details about the next Office for Mobile release (as far as I know).

Hosted (a k a "Online"): Microsoft currently is offering customers final versions of various server apps that it is hosting itself. Among the available services: Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, Office Communications Online and the Business Productivity Online suite. (There are also "Deskless" SharePoint and Exchange offerings available as part of the "Online" family, which give users very limited editing/mail functionality.) Microsoft will continue to introduce updates and refreshes to these services, while adding new ones to its stable. Microsoft sells its Online hosted wares as subscription services for a monthly per-user fee.

Web: Simultaneously with Office 14 client, Microsoft plans to roll out Webified versions of its various Office applications. Microsoft currently calls this suite of apps "Office Web Apps." These aren't like Google Docs; they are tethered to SharePoint, and offer a subset of the features in the existing client-based Office apps. The first Office Web Apps are in alpha test and expected to go to beta this summer, with a final first release anticipated for the first half of 2010. Microsoft officials have said the consumer versions of Office Web Applications will be free and ad-supported and the business versions will be sold as paid subscription services.

Live: Office Live services are not the same as the Office Web Apps. Office Live services are meant to complement client-based Office. The current set of Office Live offerings includes Office Live Workspace (a collaboration service for Office users), Office Live Small Business (for building Web sites, storing documents, etc.). Microsoft is in the midst of consolidating its Office Live and Windows Live offerings and teams; what that means for the future of Office Live is still murky.

If you've managed to stick with me so far -- and feel like you sort of/kind of understand the Office line-up -- try reasoning through these scenarios:

  • Why would anyone want Office Live Workspace once Microsoft delivers Office Web Apps?
  • If you have Office apps able to run inside Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox, why would you want or need an Office Mobile running natively on these platforms?
  • If Silverlight 3.0, due later this year, will allow Web apps to run outside the browser, why does Microsoft need Office Web Apps? Why not just develop Office Web Apps in Silverlight?

The Office team is unwilling to share any more details at this time on Office Web Apps. Microsoft also is currently unwilling to talk about what's next in the Office Mobile space. So your guess about how Microsoft ultimately plans to get Office on the iPhone is as good as mine....

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