Microsoft Office 2010 Debuts, Challenges Google Apps

Microsoft Office 2010 will be offered as a free online service to Microsoft Live subscribers, directly challenging Google Apps and other free cloud-based applications. Although Microsoft's market dominance has traditionally been centered on the desktop, the products rolling out at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans show that Microsoft is increasingly seeing cloud-based applications and productivity suites as the wave of the future.

Microsoft Office 2010, the newest version of Microsoft's office productivity suite, will be launched as a free online service for subscribers of Microsoft Live. The move is a potentially radical one for Microsoft-a company whose market dominance has traditionally been based on desktop-centered applications-and represents a direct counter to Google and other companies that have rolled out cloud-based productivity applications over the past few years.

OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint are the parts of Office 2010 that will be rendered accessible online, although the cloud-based versions will not replicate all the features available in the full versions. In addition to access through Windows Live, Microsoft also plans to offer Office 2010 as both a hosted subscription service and an on-premises application.

"A lot of customers aren't just ready to move to the cloud in one shot," Takeshi Numoto, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office, said in an interview with eWEEK. "We provide an option that says, if you want us to host it, of course we'll host it; but if you want more control, you can get a hosted service."

Numoto declined to mention any data related to potential uptime for Web-based versions of Office. Although he reiterated that the Microsoft Live version of Office 2010 will be free, Numoto also declined to mention any potential price structure for the hosted or on-premises versions.

In a step that demonstrates the rising primacy of applications that run via a Web-based interface, even versions of Office 2010 running from an on-premises data center will be made accessible through the browser.

Microsoft will demonstrate Office 2010 at its Worldwide Partner Conference, which starts July 13 in New Orleans. Other products shown will include Windows 7, Silverlight 3, Windows Mobile 6.5 and Windows Server 2008. The accompanying lineup of speakers includes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

Office 2010, along with SharePoint Server 2010, Visio 2010 and Project 2010, are now at the technical preview engineering milestone. The technical preview for rich client applications and Web services will begin for a select group of users in August, followed by the beta release.

In addition to the lightweight Web-browser versions of Office suite, Microsoft also plans to introduce new collaboration elements for Word, PowerPoint and OneNote. According to Numoto, users will be able to see what others have done in a collaborative document and avoid making conflicting changes.

Microsoft has also concentrated on making the Web-based version of Office 2010 more accessible through mobile devices.

"For any phones with a modern browser, you can access your documents on the browser and make lightweight edits, which does not cause the documents to be damaged in any way," Numoto said.

Microsoft Live currently has 400 million subscribers. Paired with the 90 million Office annuity customers who run the suite on their premises, that represents a potentially massive base with which the company can challenge Google, which has been making inroads into traditionally Microsoft territory with its Google Apps and upcoming Chrome OS.

Realizing that the future of IT may lie in the cloud, Microsoft has been moving away from its desktop-centered comfort zone to a more aggressive Web-based stance. Also at the Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft plans to announce Silverlight 3, the newest version of its RIA (rich Internet application) technology, which the company said will allow it to challenge Adobe and to provide, through new features such as enhanced video performance and support for various applications, a platform for its own browser-based initiatives.

On July 11, Google announced plans for the Google Chrome OS, an operating system initially intended for mininotebooks, aka netbooks. That announcement led to a news cycle in which a number of media outlets predicted an erosion in Microsoft's potential future market share; however, Microsoft is developing its own stripped-down operating system, code-named Gazelle.

Gazelle would potentially manage access to devices and system resources and enforce policies, and in the process allow for easier operation of cloud-based applications such as Office 2010. However, Microsoft has announced no plans for a commercial version of Gazelle to blunt the rollout of Chrome OS, which is scheduled to debut in the second half of 2010.

As Google, Microsoft and other IT companies seem more and more dedicated to trading body blows through new iterations of Web-based applications, it remains to be seen how the rest of the industry will respond to Office 2010.