Microsoft officially announced that the Technical Preview of its next release of Microsoft Office, code-named Office 15, has begun. According to PJ Hough, who runs the Office division at Microsoft, "everyone will have the opportunity to try the Office 15 public beta later this summer."
My ZDNet colleague Mary Jo Foley says her sources tell her that the goal is to release Office 15 to manufacturing before the end of the calendar year.
That ambitious schedule says a lot about the solidity of Windows 8, if past experience is any guide.
During recent release cycles, Office has tracked Windows in predictable fashion. Office 2007 shipped at the same time as Windows Vista. Office 2010 lagged Windows 7 by a quarter or two. With Office 2010, a Technical Preview was made available around the same time as the Windows 7 release candidate. The Office 2010 beta appeared around the same time as general availability of Windows 7.
A little lag in the Office schedule compared to Windows makes sense from a business perspective. Office is still an enterprise product, and only the most daring businesses are deploying a new Windows version on the day it's released. In addition, some Office features depend on underlying OS capabilities. Having a free beta available with a finished (or nearly so) operating system is a good way for corporate customers to kick the tires of both products.
When I was talking about Office 15 with a colleague a few weeks ago, I said I expected it in the first half of 2013. This advanced schedule suggests that Microsoft's development teams for both Windows and Office are hitting on all cylinders. What's most impressive about the Office announcement is the way that all the separate products are finally being unified on a single timeline:
With Office 15, for the first time ever, we will simultaneously update our cloud services, servers, and mobile and PC clients for Office, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and Visio.
Based on this schedule, I think it's strongly possible we'll see Windows 8 finished and delivered to OEMs before Labor Day. ARM tablets running a preview version of a "Metro-ized" Office could even be available by then.
Over the weekend, several of my more skeptical journalist and analyst friends expressed doubts about Microsoft's progress with Windows 8, with at least one believing firmly that Windows 8 will slip into 2013.
This announcement tells me that the Windows team might be preparing a big upside surprise for those skeptics.