Monday, Microsoft unwrapped the next edition of its Office money maker at a press event and simultaneously launched a public preview for users to try out now.
CEO Steve Ballmer touted the new software as "the most ambitious release of Office that we've ever done," then ceded the stage to others who demonstrated some of the suite's features and functionality. And while there were questions left on the table -- when will it be released and how much will it cost being most prominent -- it's clear this isn't your dad's Office: For one thing, Microsoft's breaking with a 21-year tradition in how it will sell its next productivity collection.
Let's cut to the chase, though: What you want is to do is try it out, right?
How do you get the Customer Preview? What do you need to run it? What's the most important news?
We have answers to the out-of-the-gate questions.
What's Microsoft calling the new suite? Good question. The answer: Pick a name.
During Monday's roll-out, Microsoft referred to it as "the new Office" without sticking a numerical label on it. But "Office 2013" will be used as the nameplate for the traditional shrink-wrapped product that provides a perpetual license for one upfront fee. And then there's the whole Office 365 thing....
Call us a tad confused by the scattershot branding.
How do I get it? Start here, the download portal for what Microsoft's calling "Customer Preview" -- note its continued refusal to use the term "beta," which it also eschewed for Windows 8. Pick your poison, enter your Windows account login credentials and you're off.
Can I run it? Yes, as long as you have a PC powered by Windows 7 or the Windows 8 Release Preview, the last in the short series of sneak peeks that Microsoft has offered for the upcoming operating system. (Release Preview debuted May 31, for those watching the calendar.)
If you've one of the 50.3% of PC users working on either the 11-year-old Windows XP or the five-year-old Vista, though, you're out of luck.
The fact that Office 2013 won't run on XP is no shock -- after all, it faces retirement in 21 months, in mid-April 2014, and Microsoft would like nothing better than for XP to just go away, as in yesterday. But the lack of support for Vista was a surprise, at least to us.
I don't need Windows 8 to run the new Office? Nope, although CEO Steve Ballmer on Monday pitched Windows 8 as the "best" platform for the new suite and in a statement claimed that it "will fully light up when paired with Windows 8."
Windows RT, the tablet-centric offshoot of Windows 8 designed for mobile devices powered by ARM processors, will include new Metro-ized versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Dubbed "Office Home and Student 2013 RT" -- a mouthful -- it got little attention Monday as Microsoft instead focused on the desktop suite.
What do I get? Depends on the edition, as usual.
The consumer preview, dubbed "Office 365 Home Premium," includes Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher and Word. The other for-business editions add InfoPath and Lync, and access to hosted copies of server-side software including Exchange, Lync and SharePoint.
How much? We don't know. Microsoft's not spilled that information yet.
How long can I use the Preview? For up to 60 days after the real deal launches in your market, says Microsoft.
As that expiration date approaches -- no, Microsoft hasn't set an on-sale timetable -- the preview will ping you about the looming deadline. If you don't pay up for either the standalone single-license Office 2013 or subscribe to one of the Office 365 plans, you will be able to only view or print documents. You won't be able to create new ones, or edit and save existing ones.
Is there a Mac version? Not yet, but there will be.
"The Preview version does not include Mac," says Microsoft on its website. "When available, the full release of Office 365 will be available on Mac computers in addition to PCs."
We noticed a footnote on a Microsoft fact sheet that stated "Office for Mac 2011 included for Macs" that, if we read it right, meant subscribers to Office 365 plans will get the newest Mac office.
We're not sure, but from what Microsoft said later, that sounds right.
Microsoft confirmed that the Mac component of Office 365 will be based on Office for Mac 2011, and also said that an unspecified update will be delivered for Office for Mac 2011 at the time Office 2013 and Office 365 Home Premium debut.
"With this update, Office for Mac licenses can count as part of your Office 365 Home Premium subscription," said a company spokesperson in an email reply to questions.
So if you have a heterogeneous household -- a few Macs, a few PCs, but no more than five -- all can run Office.
"You will also be able to use SkyDrive and/or Office 365 to save and access all your documents from your Mac," the spokesperson added.
How will Microsoft sell Office? Two ways. The first you're familiar with, and has roots stretching back to November 1990: You pay a one-time fee for a boxed copy with a DVD or for a digital download. In return you receive a single license, letting you install and use the suite on one PC. Call that Office 2013.
The second way is brand new. On Monday, Microsoft said it will sell Office as a subscription under its Office 365 label in several new editions, including one for consumers (Home Premium), very small businesses (Small Business Premium), small businesses (ProPlus) and corporations (Enterprise).
You'll pay a recurring fee -- perhaps monthly, maybe annually -- that gives you the right to install and run Office on up to five devices owned or controlled by you, or in the case of a business, assigned to you.
Office 365 also offers extras geared to each edition's audience: Home Premium, for instance, will come with 20GB of additional in-the-cloud SkyDrive storage space and 60 minutes of Skype calling credit per month.
What editions will be available in the traditional "pay-up-front" model where I download one copy or buy a shrink-wrapped box? Microsoft didn't spell that out at the Monday press conference, but we found a list here.
Office Home and Student 2013
Office Home and Business 2013
Office Professional 2013
Elsewhere, we found mention of another edition, Office Professional Plus 2013.
Can I test drive a preview of the standard, non-365 Office 365? Yes, you can.
IT administrators and others can download what Microsoft calls the Office Professional Plus 2013 Preview starting with the link at the very bottom of this page on TechNet.
Because it uses a standard installer, it must be the only copy of Office on the PC, so you have to first uninstall the existing Office, if there is one.
What about upgrades? Microsoft was mum on upgrade availability, prices or what previous versions will qualify.
Microsoft wants me to subscribe to Office? Yes. Actually the business model is bigger news than the fact that there's a new suite.
Microsoft's taken the idea of Office 365, a subscription service pitched to businesses -- and recently education -- that provides online Office apps along with hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync, and given it a major twist by adding locally-installed Office 2013 applications.
The carrot Microsoft's dangling is the five licenses: If you subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium, for example, you can install the suite on up to five devices, such as a mix of desktops, notebooks and tablets. You can deactivate devices on the fly -- to free up a slot for a new PC, say.
And there are second and third carrots, too. First, all the devices covered by an account automatically sync Office settings, so that the recently accessed document list is consistent across PCs and tablets. And the default document location, SkyDrive, means that you can start a spreadsheet on one PC, save it to SkyDrive, then open it on another computer to finish.
Second, as long as you keep paying the sub fee, you'll receive any and all feature updates and upgrades to Office. It's unclear how frequently Microsoft will offer such updates, and how significant they will be.
Office 365 plans for business allow the same five-installs-per-user. Small Business Premium aims at very small shops with 10 or fewer workers, while ProPlus is for up to 25 employees. Enterprise is for companies who want to cover more than 25 people.
So ... I need to be online to use Office under a 365 subscription plan? No. The Office 2013 applications are not hosted on Microsoft's servers; they're installed on each device you authorize under the five-license limit.
However, you can temporarily work on another machine, say a friend's or at a public PC in a hotel's business center. For that you do need a connection to the Internet.
You log into your Office 365 account, select one of the so-called "roaming" apps, like Word or Excel or PowerPoint, and the app immediately starts streaming to the system. On a broadband connection, you should be able to start work in just a few minutes.
When you're done -- and the document has been saved, presumably to your SkyDrive account -- the traces of Office and your work are scrubbed from the machine.
Where do I get support for the Preview? From Microsoft's Answers peer-to-peer support website if you're using Office 365 Home Premium, or from the Office 365 Community site if you're running any other of the preview plans.
Tried it..., didn't like it. How do I get rid of it? Two ways, actually. You can simply deactivate Office from each machine using your My Account page (you may need to log in).
That leaves Office on each device, but in read-only mode, the same functionality you'll have when the Preview expires.
To eradicate Office, use the Control Panel and its "Uninstall or change programs" tool to -- d'oh -- uninstall the suite.
Any word on Office for iPad? None, or as Rob Helm, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, noted in an interview Monday, "Not a peep."
If Microsoft does create an Office edition for iOS, one thing is almost certain: Installing it on an iPad or iPhone will count as one of the five-devices-per-user under the Office 365 plans.
That could be a huge selling point for Office 365 to customers -- consumers and businesspeople alike -- who want to access Office-made documents on their iPhone or iPad.
When does the shrink-wrapped Office 2103 and the Office 365 subscription plans go on sale? No word Monday from Microsoft on that.
Launch-date speculation is all over the map, with many expecting the same development pace as three years ago with Office 2010, which would mean Office would debut in late January or early February.
Some long-time Windows watchers, though, are marking their calendars differently, from November 2012 (ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley) to May 2013 (Paul Thurrott of SuperSite for Windows).
Your guess is probably as good as any.
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