Microsoft Offers Sneak Peek at Updated Office 365

Cloud-based application supports features of Office 2013.

At a special San Francisco event yesterday, Microsoft executives demonstrated the next version of its cloud-enabled Office 365 productivity suite.

CEO Steve Ballmer and corporate vice president of the Microsoft Office division Kirk Koenigsbauer, described a touch-based product that is optimized for social networkingwith a Metro-style user interface. Until now, Microsoft had been virtually silent about Office 2013 (code-named "Office 15"), with just a brief unveiling of Office 2013 RT during TechEd.

The current Office 365 service, called Office Pro Plus, is installed and maintained by the customer; it has not been cloud enabled. Microsoft also offers Office Web Apps, but it differs from the full-featured applications demonstrated by Balmer and Koenigsbauer.

Ballmer and Koenigsbauer showed the Office 365 cloud-enabled version of Office 2013 on a tablet with x86 hardware running the new system-on-chip processors being developed by AMD and Intel. Ballmer claimed that Office 2013 users "give up nothing" in terms of the user experience on the ARM platform. The presentation also included a demo of the new Office solution on a Nokia Lumia Windows Phone. Koenigsbauer explained taht that documents stored in the cloud can be made easily accessible across a varoetu pf devices using Office 365.

Microsoft yesterday announced that "customer preview" versions of Office 365 are available for testing here. Ballmer also hinted at an upcoming Office 2013 product that for use on premises, but noted, "I think the bulk of people will want to move with us with the Office service." Office 365 will be designed to save documents to Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud-storage service by default. In April, Microsoft cut the amount of free storage space new SkyDrive users can use at no cost from 25 GB to 7 GB. SkyDrive targets at consumers; SharePoint is Microsoft's document storage and management tool for the enterprise.

Microsoft also posted new materials thata FAQ describe the five new Office 365 products, which are planned for release this fall. Pricing will be announced later. The products which include cloud-based versions of Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word:

  • Home Premium Preview: Allows installations on up to five PCs and comes with 7 GB of free SkyDrive storage. Microsoft is planning to bolster this storage with "an additional 20 GB," but it is unclear if it will also be free. The company is also planning to add 60 minutes of free Skype international calling each month. The free Skype service will work with landlines in more than 40 countries and cell phones in seven countries. The Skype service isn't part of the preview but will be available when the final product ships.

  • Office 365 Small Business Premium Preview: Supports up to 10 employees on up to five PCs. Microsoft says Lync will be part of this bundle. Although high-definition videoconferencing "professional e-mail" and "shared documents" capabilities are mentioned, it's not clear if customers receive all Lync features.

  • Office 365 ProPlus Preview: Permits up to 25 user accounts, with five installations of Office 365 ProPlus per user. This bundle adds InfoPath and Lync capabilities.

  • Office 365 Enterprise Preview: Combines Office 365 ProPlus with the Microsoft Exchange Online service. Microsoft's FAQ claims that the Exchange Online service allows organizations the ability to archive mail and set a "legal hold" on e-mail traffic. The bundle also comes with SharePoint Online and Lync Online capabilities.

  • Office for Mac: No details were described, but Office for Mac served up over the Internet by Microsoft will be available when the new Office 365 product is finalized. No preview version is currently available.

Ballmer and Koenigsbauer showed Office 365 running a Metro touch interface based on Windows 8 during the demonstrations. However, the preview can also run on earlier versions of Windows, including Windows 7, Vista, XP, as well as Server 2008 R2 and Server 2012. The previews are available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions , but Microsoft recommends using the 32-bit version because of compatibility issues.  The solutions should be used for testing only and not for production.  Documents will become read-only after the preview period ends for those already using the Office 365 plan. For users of the Office 365 Small Business Premium or Office 365 Enterprise Previews, the situation is different.  "If you installed Office 365 Small Business Premium or Office 365 Enterprise, all data in the Preview account will be deleted when the Preview ends, including email and calendar data, web sites, and uploaded documents, so be sure to move any information you want to keep to a different location," Microsoft's FAQ warns. [Emphasis added]

The previews downloaded from Microsoft's TechNet site expire on June 30, 2013. "At that time, it will not be possible to use the product any further," the FAQ states bluntly.

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