Microsoft Office 2013 launches, head firmly in the cloud

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The all new version of Microsoft Office is here. Sort of.

The Redmond-based tech giant today released a customer preview for the latest iteration of its wildly popular productivity suite, Office 2013.

The familiar names — Word, PowerPoint, Excel– are all there but everything has distinct taste of “cloud” about it. In Outlook, for instance, you can view multiple email accounts, Facebook updates, and LinkedIn.

You can also get ongoing updates on specific documents, sites and people delivered to your activity feed and chat with co-workers within Office.

All of that makes a lot more sense when you bear in mind Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s claim that this was the first time that software was “designed from the get go” for cloud software-as a service.

Sure you can still go out and buy a physical copy of Office but you’ll also be able to subscribe to a web-only version known as Office 365.

Until now, Office 365 (launched last year) has been targeted mainly at businesses, but now it looks like Microsoft wants the consumer market to join it in the cloud.

As has been the case with each new edition of Office for some time now, it comes in a variety of flavours.

Home Premium is meant for families, who want the software on up to five PCs and includes, 60 minutes of free international calls every month to landlines in over 40 countries and to cell phones in seven countries on Skype as well as 20GB of storage on SkyDrive, the company’s online storage product.

Small Business Premium comes with business-class email, shared calendars, website tools and video conferencing as extra.

Office 365 ProPlus meanwhile is meant for big businesses looking for features up to and including a greater degree of control over their employees’ files.

The latest iteration of Office also seems to Windows 8 very much in mind. This is most evident in the fact that people will be able to use swipe gestures on most of the programs when they’re running on a touch-enabled device.

Microsoft also seems to have taken a leaf out of Google’s book by ensuring that the web-based version of Office will be available offline. Like Google Docs, you can save offline and the changes will sync across all your devices once you get online.

Make no mistake, Microsoft is doing everything in its power to make good on its promise that Apple will have no space to breathe in any of the areas it plays in.

Thing is, when Apple made the decision to build a complete ecosystem, it was a pioneer. Microsoft is following here. The only way it can do that is by making sure that its products are consistently better and more visually appealing than Apple’s.

Windows 8 looks promising as does its tablet play, the Microsoft Surface. The new Office acknowledges other social networks, largely abandoning the company’s own efforts in that are. That’s good. It’s one less battle Microsoft has to fight. Let’s not forget that it also has shares in Facebook and outright owns Skype, two of the most powerful social tools out there.

It will be interesting to see how making Office available on the cloud effects Microsoft’s revenues. After all, the sales of Office software account for a sizeable portion of Microsoft’s revenue (almost US US$22-billion last year).

Sure it’ll continue to be important, but will it lose ground to Google’s free web-based productivity suite?

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