Microsoft debuts new Office suite, with focus on the cloud


A screenshot of the Microsoft's latest version of Word. (Courtesy of Microsoft/Courtesy of Microsoft)
January 29, 2013

Flexibility is the keyword of Microsoft’s latest version of Office for the average consumer. The company is offering the software for an annual subscription, which also comes with plenty of online storage for the cloud-focused suite of programs.

Microsoft Office Home Premium 365 goes on sale Tuesday for $99.99 per year, the first time that the company has offered its Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other programs on a pay-as-you-go basis. With a Home Premium 365 subscription, users have five installation codes, so they can put the program on multiple computers in their home and at the office.They also get 20 GB of cloud storage on the company’s SkyDrive service, meaning they can access documents from anywhere, and an hour of free Skype international calls per month. The suite includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher and Access.

Changing consumer habits drove Microsoft to consider a subscription model, which lets users put the Office suite on multiple devices, said Chris Schneider, a senior public relations manager at Microsoft.

Seventy-three percent of people send their last e-mail of the day after they’ve left the office, Schneider said, which indicated to Microsoft that it had to make its core office products more accessible.

Buying a subscription to Office also means that users will get any upgrades to the program automatically, rather than having to upgrade their programs with a separate purchase in a couple of years. Once a subscription expires, documents go into a read-only mode, meaning they can be seen and downloaded, but not edited — though users can edit them if they have older versions of Office on their computers. Renewing your lapsed subscription should restore editing features.

Users can create multiple accounts within their subscription, and each person can have a unique settings profile. That means that not only will they be able to log in to the service with their own settings intact, they’ll also be the only user on the account with access to their own documents. So, even with a family account, Junior’s essay on the Scarlet Letter won’t end up in the same folder as Mom’s budget plan for the year.

The main functions and features of the new version of Office are mostly unchanged, though they have been rethought and redesigned to work on mobile devices and the Web.

Some users have already seen these programs in action — Microsoft made beta versions of its Office 2013 apps available this past summer. The programs still have the ribbon-style navigation introduced in 2010, but also pulls design cues from the new Windows 8 operating system, which are designed to make the system touch-friendly as well.

The majority of changes seem aimed at simplifying what users see on-screen. For example, the ribbon menu is often collapsed by default, to give whatever you’re working centerstage billing. Excel lets users see a one-click pop-up graph of their data with a feature called “Quick Analysis.” In Word, users can enable “reading mode,” which strips menus and toolbars from view, leaving only the main text.

All these ideas make a lot of sense when you consider Microsoft is also marketing these products for the tablet, where cramped design can lead to serious creative roadblocks.

Microsoft has also taken pains to bring aspects of its applications more up-to-date. For example, Web videos will play natively within Word documents, Outlook will show social connections on networks including Facebook or LinkedIn, and OneNote notes will connect with meeting entries in Outlook. There are also neat common-sense features, like the “Attachment Reminder” feature in Outlook, which will let you know if you’ve referred to an attached document in an e-mail but forgotten to actually attach it.

Users will also be able to shop at the Microsoft Office application store, which offers third-party apps that bring extra feature users can lay over their programs. This includes things like access to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in Word. Prices for the apps will range from free to $59.99, Schneider said.

Office.com, which had formerly been a site for tricks and tips, is now the hub of the Office suite’s Web presence — not only the place where users go to download their programs, but also where they control their subscription and get quick access to their documents.

The $100 per year price tag may be difficult for some to swallow, even with the SkyDrive and Skype perks, and really basic users can probably meet their basic needs with free office software available online. But users get what they pay for, and Office still offers a richer array of features — particularly on Excel and Access — combined with an ease-of-use factor than users are likely to find on the cheap.

If Home Premium 365 comes with more programs than you really need, or you don’t want a subscription, Microsoft is also offering different variations of Office, which include different combinations of programs. For example, a one-computer license for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote costs $139.99; a deal for university students will get them a four-year subscription to the full suite for $79.99 with a student account.

Related stories:

Microsoft’s fiscal 2nd-quarter earnings slip despite uptick in Windows division

Microsoft to sell Surface Windows 8 Pro on Feb 9 for $899

Microsoft risks straining PC partnerships with Dell investment

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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