A long time ago, at a tradeshow that no longer exists, Microsoft made a Big Deal out of its announcement that the next version of Office would be available by subscription. They even put out a press release to mark the occasion:
Microsoft Corp. announced a new subscription offering for "Office 10," the code name for the next version of Microsoft® Office, which will provide customers with an exciting new opportunity to subscribe to the world's leading desktop productivity suite for an annual fee. This new model will enable home and small-business customers to acquire the latest version of Office at a lower initial cost while receiving product upgrades released during their subscription at no additional expense. Customers will be able to obtain their subscription via a new packaged product at retail stores in select worldwide regions when "Office 10" becomes available toward the end of the first half of 2001. The subscription can be renewed annually via telephone or over the Internet, or by acquiring a new subscription product at retail stores.
That version of Office turned into Office XP, which was released to manufacturing in March of 2001. But the subscription offering, which was tested briefly in Australia, New Zealand, and France, never saw the light of day. So what happened?
The concept of software as a subscription service was once very popular. Today, at least in Redmond, the concept appears to be radioactive. A Knowledge Base article about the end-user subscription license program is still available at Microsoft's Help and Support site, but other than that, I can't find any references to the concept since that 2001 announcement.
If you thought that this week's introduction of Office Live marked the rebirth of this concept, you're not alone. As Microsoft's Robert Scoble pointed out yesterday, it's a triumph of bad branding:
Office Live isn’t what you think it is. It wasn’t what I thought it was (I was thinking it’d be an internet version of the Office Suite like PowerPoint, Excel, Word). It’s not. Get that out of your mind. And damn the marketers who are extending the Office brand.
Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox goes out on a limb with this prediction:
Office Live absolutely is not a hosted version of Microsoft Office. People have asked me if Microsoft is hosting Office applications or would do so in the future. Answers are no and highly unlikely. I don't expect Microsoft to offer a hosted version of Office as part of Office Live. Ever. While Microsoft obviously is concerned about the Web 2.0 concept, the company is not going into the hosted applications business.
Joe's absolutely right as far as Office 12 is concerned. If there were any plans to make Word, Excel, and the gang available as Web pieces, we'd know it already. But the shift to completely XML-based formats means Office on the Web would be a lot easier to offer. And I'd be amazed if those options weren't under active development right now. Office 13 Web Edition, anyone?