Apparently forgetting what happened when a certain soft drink company rebranded its flagship product as "New Coke," Microsoft Corp. on Monday announced "the new Office,” as a press release called it, an applications suite that will respond to your touch on a screen, a keyboard or a stylus glided across a screen.
By default, documents will be stored in Microsoft’s cloud service known as SkyDrive, which the firm says will mean "your content is always available across your tablet, PC and phone. Your documents are also available offline and sync when you reconnect." (Microsoft didn’t specify which "tablet, PC and phone" it’s thinking of, but I wouldn't bet the farm on any of those being Apple Inc. products.)
And the new and improved Office will be "social," Microsoft promises, including access to Yammer, the business-oriented social network, and Skype, the Internet-based calling service, both of which are now owned by Microsoft. The idea is to be able to work in collaboration, and, if desired, globally.
There will be various "subscription levels" of the new Office program aimed at home, small business and enterprise users. Pricing will be announced later on, and some of the new Office features will also be available, via means undisclosed, on an updated Microsoft Office for Mac 2012.
All this seems pretty good on its face, with one exception I’ll get to in a moment. To my periodic amazement, Office has become more than just a suite with a word processor, database, spreadsheet and presentation program (email and contacts client optional). Microsoft Word has taken on the functions of a demi-desktop publishing program, Excel’s universe may have enough templates to calculate the budget of the United States, and PowerPoint, well, what needs to be said about its ubiquity? Such heavily employed software needs regular care and feeding.
Because of its tremendous market penetration, Office itself also needs regular updating. And because the market has shifted greatly in the two years or so since the last refresh (Can you say "iPad"?), Microsoft would be foolish to ignore the fundamental changes that have that have taken place in tech usage, starting with smartphones, the cloud and the aforementioned tablets.
I downloaded and installed a "preview" version of "the new Office" on the day it was announced; you can do this, too, at office.com/preview. There’s no cost (you do have to be a registered user of the firm’s Windows Live service, also free), and no obligation.
While it is far too early to reach a final verdict, I’ll say that I like what I see thus far. For those who want to overdose on formatting options, there’s plenty of opportunities here. Microsoft Word, which is my first port of call, integrated well with my Windows 7 installation, although the firm says this brave new Office will function best with Windows 8, itself in beta testing right now.
But there are things that concern me. The announcement would have been the ideal place for Microsoft and CEO Steve Ballmer to roll out something startling for Apple’s iPad, which is still the dominant tablet device out there.
I’m thinking a $25 Word/Excel/PowerPoint tablet bundle, maybe, which would undercut Apple’s trio of Pages, a word processor; Keynote, for presentations, and the self-explanatory Numbers. Such news was not forthcoming.
SkyDrive is touted as being compatible with Microsoft’s devices and platforms, but I’m not sure how it’ll work elsewhere. That, too, troubles me: It’s not a Windows-only world anymore.
While it’s easy to understand Microsoft’s position — presumably the firm wants to drive users to its hardware and software solutions — I will again quote the great technology analyst Austin Powers: "That train has sailed."
In a multiplatform world, vendors must offer multiplatform alternatives. That’s why the world at large is waiting to see the iPhone 5, while Nokia and AT&T last week halved the price of their Windows Phone-based Lumia device to less than $50. I can sync my iPhone with a Windows PC; the Lumia, as noted here, is Windows or nothing.
There are likely many improvements in Microsoft’s latest offering that will tempt users. But unless and until those users can work across all platforms and devices, it may well be a "new Office" with a "New Coke" aftertaste.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at email@example.com.
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