Microsoft on Monday conceded that Google's Chrome OS and the Chromebooks the operating system powers are capable of doing real work, a reversal of its "Scroogled" campaign that once blasted the laptops as worthless.
Almost as an afterthought, Microsoft yesterday announced it was bringing its free Office Online apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote -- to rival Google's Chrome Web store, the primary distribution channel for Chrome OS software.
Microsoft released Word and PowerPoint to the store Monday, and said it will launch Excel Online shortly. It published OneNote on the store last Friday, April 11.
The move was largely symbolic: The Office Online apps have long been able to run within virtually any browser, including Chrome, the foundation of Chrome OS.
But by packaging the apps in .crx format and submitting them to the automated review run by Google, and thus publishing them to the Chrome Web Store, Microsoft put its Office Online in front of Chrome and Chrome OS users and in a place they've been trained to look for Web apps.
It was also a repudiation of Scroogled, the name Microsoft slapped on its attack ad-based campaigns that took shots at Google and its practices. Last November, Microsoft targeted Chromebooks in an advertisement starring reality show "Pawn Stars" personalities who argued that the devices were not legitimate laptops.
"It's not a real laptop," the pawn shop owner said in the ad of a Chromebook a seller hoped to hock. "It doesn't have Windows or Office."
While Chromebooks do not run Windows, they do Office, or at least Office Online, the free browser-based apps that provide an increasing amount of functionality.
Microsoft's move was also reminiscent of several that Google has made, including releasing a "Metro" version of Chrome for Windows 8, 8.1 and 8.1 Update that dramatically changed the standard Microsoft user interface (UI). Google's strategy has been described by some analysts as subversive, one that tries to assimilate devices running other operating systems into the search giant's web of services.
Office is one of Microsoft's most potent weapons in its struggle to morph into a company dedicated to selling devices and services, and become the firm known for its "mobile first, cloud first" battle cry. So, with little leverage on Chrome OS owners and a customer who's running Chrome lost to IE, it's no surprise that Office is Microsoft's strongest play here.
Microsoft made that play Monday, not to generate revenue but to remind Chrome and Chrome OS users, in particular the latter, that Office runs on their hardware, and to plant the seed that Google's browser and OS can be a part of the Office "universe," especially Office 365, the software-by-subscription service whose titles now run on a variety of platforms, including Windows, OS X, iOS and Android.
Word Online and OneNote Online require a live Internet connection, symbolized here by being grayed out when Chrome is offline. Only 'packaged apps,' like Google Drive and WeatherBug, shown here in full color, can run without a live link in Chrome or on Chrome OS.
Because the applications and apps in the consumer-grade Office 365 plans automatically save documents to Microsoft's OneDrive, the same online storage service where Office Online files are stored, documents, spreadsheets and presentations created on, say, a Windows 7 PC can be viewed and edited on a Chrome OS laptop or within the Chrome browser on a Mac.
If nothing else, that puts Chrome and Chrome OS within Microsoft's Office "reach," and ties Chrome OS into Office 365, just as the service has absorbed Macs, iPads, iPhones and Android devices.
The Office Online apps in the Chrome Web Store are what Google calls "hosted apps," meaning that they're essentially tweaked Web apps, or software that runs within the framework of a browser.
As hosted apps, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote require a live Internet connection to function within Chrome or run on a Chromebook.
The Chrome Web Store also contains more sophisticated apps, dubbed "packaged apps," ueber-Web apps that are much closer to "native" software -- the kind written for a specific operating system, say Windows and its desktop -- that can run minus an Internet connection and call on several Google APIs (application programming interfaces) and services barred to hosted Web apps.
Microsoft has not taken that step yet. But it could, and thus turn Office Online into something better described as "Office Offline." If it did produce offline-capable versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for Chromebooks, Microsoft would have something analogous to the written-specifically-for-the-iPad apps released last month, and cover Chrome OS in the same way it does Apple's tablet, the iPhone and Android smartphones.
Microsoft would not, by its past practices anyway, give away those apps, but would instead, as it has the iPad apps, link their operation to an Office 365 subscription.
However, Computerworld encountered a conflict between Word and PowerPoint that blocked the installation of the latter within Chrome when the former was already present. Others had reported the same problem in comments appended to Microsoft's blogged announcement.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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