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Are Microsoft's 'Radical' Office Changes Enough to Entice?

Are Microsoft's 'Radical' Office Changes Enough to Entice?
By Barry Levine

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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Office is available online as Office 365, which has been completely rebuilt for online use, as well as in the more traditional shrink-wrapped version of Office for local installation. In the new online Microsoft Office, documents are automatically saved to the cloud-based SkyDrive by default.

Get ready for the new Microsoft Office. On Monday, the technology giant unveiled a customer preview of its Office productivity suite, designed for the coming Windows 8 operating system and offering such new features as a full touch-based interface and integrated social media.

The new Office can be controlled via touchscreen, keyboard and mouse, or by a stylus whose handwriting is converted to text. The product is available as the online Office 365, which CEO Steve Ballmer said has been completely rebuilt for online use, as well as in the more traditional shrink-wrapped version for local installation.

SkyDrive, Skype, People Card

In the new online Office, documents are automatically saved to cloud-based SkyDrive by default, and signed-in users can have their settings saved when moving to another device.

As a cloud-based subscription service, Office includes 60 free Skype voice minutes per month as well as extra storage on SkyDrive. The business-oriented Yammer social network, which Microsoft recently purchased, is integrated into Office, and the People Card provides pictures, status updates, contact info, and Facebook or LinkedIn activity feeds for contacts.

OneNote offers digital note-taking -- via touch controls, pen or keyboard input -- and PowerPoint offers a new Presenter View with current and upcoming slides, presentation time, and speaker notes in one place. In presentation mode, a user can zoom or mark up slides.

The interface is streamlined, with more space, support of pinch-to-zoom and other swiping gestures, and less clutter by the ribbon menu, which is now semi-hidden until needed. Collaboration is emphasized, such as the ability to tap on a sentence in a collaborative document and see who made an edit in that sentence. If a user is currently online, their presence is indicated so that communication can take place if needed.

Office 365 Levels

Although pricing details will not be announced until the fall, the company did unveil three levels of Office 365 subscription services. Each will provide 2013 versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access, and each subscriber will have per use-rights on as many as five PCs or Macs and mobile devices.

The levels are Office 365 Home Premium for families and consumers; Small Business Premium with business-grade e-mail, shared calendars, Web site tools and HD Web conferencing; and ProPlus for enterprise users.

One of the most frequently used words being used by Microsoft-watchers to describe the new Office is "radical." We asked Laura DiDio, an analyst with industry research firm Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, if the new release, with its many changes, would provide enough compelling reasons for users to upgrade.

"It depends on the price," she said, adding that the company is "saying to Apple and Google and the industry that we're equal to you in innovation, and we're keeping up with, or ahead of, everyone."

DiDio also noted some of the many new features, such as integration with Yammer, Skype, SharePoint, and Dynamics CRM, as possible drivers for users to upgrade, as well as the appeal of a full cloud-based service in which upgrades are automatic.

Given the many new capabilities for the productivity suite, she said, there are now three keys to persuading people to upgrade: "marketing, marketing, and marketing."

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