Microsoft’s saunter toward providing all of its Office software online continues this week with a preview of its Office 2010 software.
Unlike more Webby types that throw their code willy-nilly into the Internet cloud under a beta tag, Microsoft remains committed to its protracted, multistep software release process. On Monday, Microsoft will announce the “technical preview engineering milestone” for Office 2010, which means that tens of thousands of people — many of them software engineering partners — can download the software and give it a test drive.
At the end of the year, Microsoft expects to release a proper public beta for the software, and it intends to ship a final version off to PC makers in the first half of 2010.
Ultimately, anyone who signs up for a free Windows Live account will be able to use online versions of applications like Word and PowerPoint, regardless of whether or not they buy the desktop versions of the software. This is Microsoft’s response to Google, Adobe, Zoho and others that offer online productivity software free for personal use.
Corporate customers will be able to tap into the online services as well through a couple of paid subscription options. Smaller customers could sign up for a service in which Microsoft would store their online files and help with things like security and data backup. Large customers that already have Office licenses could have Microsoft host their information or store it in-house.
All told, Microsoft says about 400 million people already have a Windows Live account through services like Hotmail and Messenger, and 90 million more corporate customers have Office subscriptions. So, the company is boasting that half a billion people will have ready access to Office 2010 online next year.
Microsoft rejects criticism that it’s late to the online party, saying that competitors have just been playing a major game of catch-up.
“Lots of competitors are doing nothing beyond copying what we have done in our product for years,” said Chris Capossela, a senior vice president in Microsoft’s business division. “They have weekly releases to add things like bold and italics and more than four fonts. We have to redefine what productivity means to 500 million people.”
As you might expect, Office 2010 has tools for letting people collaboratively work on documents, presentations and other projects at the same time over the Internet.
Microsoft has also spiced up applications like PowerPoint by making it easier to add high-definition video into projects. Microsoft has software that compresses the files down, and it has a tool that will produce a Web address for the presentation that can be sent to coworkers or customers.
“Anyone can get that address and then have a slideshow come up,” Mr. Capossela said. “We call it just-in-time show-and-tell.”
Microsoft appears to have added some nice tweaks to Outlook as well.
For example, there’s a new tool for compressing e-mail threads down to a single message. Mr. Capossela said this could be of particular use if you’re away from e-mail for a while and want to condense the back-and-forth that has taken place with coworkers on a particular topic. (This is a common feature in Google’s Gmail, for example.)
Microsoft argues that it has a real breakthrough with its Outlook “Ignore” button. This comes in handy if there’s an out-of-control e-mail thread that you don’t want any part of. You hit “ignore” and all of the messages in the thread are deleted and so is future e-mail tied to the thread.
“That is one feature nobody else has done,” Mr. Capossela said.
As Microsoft mounts its online attack, Google is encroaching further into Microsoft’s traditional turf by saying it will ship an entire computer operating system next year. Called ChromeOS, the software is based on the open-source Linux operating system and will place a premium on speed and security.
Of course, a number of companies have tried to blunt Microsoft’s dominance over office productivity software, including Google with its Apps suite and Sun Microsystems with OpenOffice. Both have had little success so far.