Microsoft has unveiled its new Office products, the first big update since Office 2010. This time, Office will be available as a pair -- Office 2013 and Office 365. You'll be able to buy just Office 2013, just like you bought earlier Office software, but this time around, you can also subscribe to the 365 service that will automatically store your files in the cloud.
If you use Google Drive, formerly called Google Docs, you may wonder why people would pay to sync their documents online when Google already does it for free. The simple answer: familiarity.
"Most consumers are creatures of habit, and they don't want to go out and learn a new system," Stephen Butler of research firm NPD said. "Most believe they need Microsoft Office."
On Monday, Microsoft released a trial version of Office 2013, along with its subscription service called Office 365 Home Premium. Essentially, the subscription service unlocks the syncing function, so people can access their files online and sync them between multiple PCs, Macs, or both.
However, the Office 2013 software can be installed only on Macs, PCs running Windows 7, and Windows mobile devices -- no earlier versions of Windows or Android or iOS devices. Microsoft did not mention plans for an iPad-compatible Office product, dashing the hopes spurred by recent rumors.
No prices were mentioned for either product. Unlike Office 2010 and older versions, 2013 will come with five licenses instead of one, so buyers can install it on multiple devices. Butler said he anticipates that Office 2013 will cost the same as Office 2010, in the neighborhood of $100 to $120. (A $150 version of Office 2010 can run on up to three devices.) As for the 365 add-on, he declined to guess how much Microsoft would charge. However, Microsoft charges businesses $6 per subscriber per month for use of its current 365 service, so the subscription for home users could be around $72 a year.
Syncing desktop files online is not new to Microsoft. Office 2010 let users upload their files to SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage. However, the process is cumbersome and unreliable. My frustration with moving Word documents one-by-one to SkyDrive was the reason I made the switch to Google, and I've never regretted it. While Word remains the standard at work, it's a simple thing to download a Google document in a Microsoft format for those who don't use Google. And for those who do, Google Drive's online sharing is a breeze to use, plus it's free.
I am in the minority. Microsoft Office has somewhere between 90 and 95 percent of the market, compared to Google Drive with around 4 percent, according to data from Hitwise. So for most people, the addition of 365 should be a big improvement. The twin package will also offer instant messaging, Skype calls, 20 gigabytes of SkyDrive storage and social media integration -- a lot like the Google Drive and Gmail with its chat, Google Voice calls (a Skype-like service) and tie-in with the Google+ social network. Google Drive includes just 5 gigabytes of free storage, which could be easily exceeded if you keep big files such as photos in the cloud.
Office 2013 will also offer a bit more flexibility with input. In addition to a touch interface designed to be used with Microsoft's new operating system, Windows 8, and traditional mouse and keyboard input, Office supports a stylus, so users can take pen-style notes on compatible devices.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to the new products is their support for touchscreens and cloud-based use -- two trends that are growing in popularity. Microsoft Office users won't be left behind.
If you're curious, you can download a preview version from Microsoft as long as you're running Windows 7: http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview/en/office-365-home-premium. The full versions of Office 2013 and 365 could be released when Microsoft launches Windows 8.
An exact date has not been scheduled for Windows 8, but Microsoft is preparing to launch its newest operating system this fall, most likely in October. The latest version builds off Windows 7, but it's designed to be used across all platforms -- including PCs, tablets and smartphones. The interface is composed of colorful tiles and looks nothing like previous Windows versions. Expect to see Windows 8 installed on most new PCs in the run-up to this holiday season.
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