Microsoft Releases 'Customer Preview' of Next-Gen Office 365

Microsoft on Monday took the wraps off the next version of its Office 365 cloud suite that's based on Office 2013 (previously code-named "Office 15").

At an event in San Francisco, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Office Division, described a touch-based and more social networking-optimized kind of Office with a Metro-style user interface. Up to this point, Microsoft had kept the wraps on Office 2013, with just a brief unveiling of Office 2013 RT during Tech-Ed.

The cloud enablement of the full Office suite is quite a new breakthrough for the company, as the productivity suite offered with the Office 365 service, called "Office Pro Plus," has been a customer-installed and maintained product up to this point, not cloud enabled. Microsoft also offers Office Web Apps, but they are not like the full-featured applications that were demonstrated today.

Ballmer and Koenigsbauer showed the Office 365 cloud-enabled version of Office 2013, which was described as running on a Samsung tablet. A Microsoft spokesperson clarified by e-mail that the tablet was x86 hardware running the new system-on-chip processors being devised by AMD and Intel. Ballmer claimed at one point that Office 2013 users "give up nothing" in terms of the user experience on the ARM platform. The demo also showed the new Office running on a Nokia Lumia Windows Phone. Koenigsbauer used the phone as an example that that documents stored in the cloud can be made easily accessible across various devices using Office 365.

Microsoft today announced that "customer preview" versions of Office 365 are now available for testing via this page. Ballmer also alluded to a future Office 2013 product that would be available for purchase and use on the customer's premises, but he said that "I think the bulk of people will want to move with us with the Office service." Office 365 will be designed to save documents to Microsoft's cloud-storage service, called "SkyDrive," by default. In April, Microsoft cut the amount of free storage space new SkyDrive users can get for free from 25 GB to 7 GB. SkyDrive is mostly aimed at consumer use, with SharePoint being Microsoft's requisite document storage and management tool for enterprise use.

Microsoft also today posted lots of new materials in a FAQ describing the various new Office 365 products, which are planned for availability this fall. Pricing will be announced later, Microsoft has indicated. Five editions of Office 365 are planned, which include cloud-based versions of Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher and Word:

  • Home Premium Preview: Allows installations on up to five PCs and comes with 7 GB of free SkyDrive storage. Microsoft is planning to bolster this storage with "an additional 20 GB," but it's not clear if it will be free. The company is also planning to add 60 minutes of free Skype international calling each month. The free Skype service will work with landlines in 40-plus countries and cell phones in seven countries. The Skype service isn't part of this preview release but it will be available when the product becomes available.

  • Office 365 Small Business Premium Preview: Supports up to 10 employees on up to five PCs. Microsoft describes Lync as being part of this bundle. While high-definition videoconferencing "professional e-mail" and "shared documents" capabilities are mentioned, it's not clear if customers get all Lync features.

  • Office 365 ProPlus Preview: Permits up to 25 user accounts, with five installations of Office 365 ProPlus per user. This bundle throws in InfoPath and Lync capabilities.

  • Office 365 Enterprise Preview: Combines Office 365 ProPlus with the Microsoft Exchange Online service. Microsoft's FAQ claims that the Exchange Online service allows organizations the ability to archive mail and set a "legal hold" on e-mail traffic. The bundle also comes with SharePoint Online and Lync Online capabilities.

  • Office for Mac: No details were described, but Office for Mac served up over the Internet by Microsoft will be available when the new Office 365 product is finalized. No preview version is currently available.

Ballmer and Koenigsbauer showed Office 365 running a Metro touch-based interface based on Windows 8 during the demos. However, the preview can also run on Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP and Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2012. The preview versions are available in 32-bit and 64-bit forms, but Microsoft recommends using the 32-bit version because of compatibility issues.

Using the preview versions comes with a few caveats, so they should only be used for testing purposes. Documents become read-only after the preview period ends for those already using the Office 365 plan. It's a more dire scenario for users of the Office 365 Small Business Premium or Office 365 Enterprise Previews.

"If you installed Office 365 Small Business Premium or Office 365 Enterprise, all data in the Preview account will be deleted when the Preview ends, including email and calendar data, web sites, and uploaded documents, so be sure to move any information you want to keep to a different location," Microsoft's FAQ warns.

IT pros who download the previews from Microsoft's TechNet site will face an expiration date of June 30, 2013. "At that time, it will not be possible to use the product any further," the FAQ states bluntly.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.


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