The jewel in the crown

With Windows 8 on the horizon and the PC-veteran announcing its intention to enter the lucrative tablet market with the Surface, 2012 was already a big year for Microsoft. To top that off, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gathered the international media in San Francisco last month to unveil Office 13 – completing the set that Microsoft hopes will allow it to lead the impending redefinition of personal computing.

Whilst most of the buzz surrounding Microsoft this year has been Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface, it seems some people forgot that an update of Microsoft’s flagship product, Office, was on the cards.

Although it is perhaps the case that operating systems and tablets are a little more exciting in technology circles these days, it remains that Office is Microsoft’s biggest revenue maker.

With Apple continue to gain market share with Mac OS and its massively popular iPads, Microsoft’s widely adopted suite of applications remain its jewel in the crown in hoping to steal back some of that personal computing share.

During a media event in San Francisco on July 16, Steve Ballmer, CEO at Microsoft, showed off the new suite, which is designed heavily to suit the upcoming Windows 8, as well as to embrace the increasingly dominating world of touch tablets.

Ballmer dubbed the new Office as ”the most ambitious release of Microsoft Office that we’ve ever done” and “the most vibrant and exciting new release of Office in years.”

He frequently referred to it as “modern Office” and “Office-as-a-Service”, with a big emphasis on its cloud capabilities.

“This is a new generation of Office where Office is a service first. We’ll continue to make Office available as an application in traditional ways, but it’s the first round of Office that’s been designed from the get-go for Office to be a service. Your modern Office thinks cloud first,” Ballmer said.

“You can just click and start running Office immediately from the service. Office uses the cloud to remember what you were doing, where you were, what your preferences and favourites are, your documents and how you’re working together with other people to collaborate on those things. We need to support that for people in their individual lives and private lives, in addition to supporting enterprises in their business personas,” he added.

Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Yammer was also attributed as a core basis of the new suite’s focus on social integration and collaboration.

“We’ve made social a first class part of modern Office. One of the things that is certainly true is the way people work today is dramatically different to the way people worked when I started at Microsoft. One of the things we did that was big and to differentiate ourselves in 1980 was to give everybody a private office. I think that’s a great concept but it’s not a uniform concept and people today work in much more social and collaborative ways,” Ballmer said.

“You see that reflected in this wave of Office – the embrace of Skype, the ability to work on projects and to collaborate together. We need to let individuals in an organisation band together and then work together where appropriate under the administrative control of the enterprise,” he added.

The big question

With the Microsoft Surface set to go directly up against the iPad, the big question on everybody’s mind was whether the new Office will be offered on the iPad, or indeed other tablet operating devices.

Though Microsoft deciding not to let users download the new Office on iPad could shift more of its own tablets, it would also mean sacrificing significant sales in a market that Apple dominates.

Perhaps it was to no surprise that Microsoft dodged this double edged sword for the time being by refraining from answering this vital question, or indeed the exact release date of the product.

However, PJ Hough, corporate VP of Microsoft’s Office division, did provide some insight when questioned on the subject.

“We have not announced any changes for our support for Office mobile,” he said. “It’s not just about Surface. We think that Office is going to work great on a very wide array of devices.”

He said that Microsoft has “unparalleled investment” in productivity and collaboration scenarios on personal devices. Disregarding the fact that Microsoft is quite late on the tablet scene, he said that Microsoft are actually the people thinking most about productivity on tablet devices.

“We think that this is a transition time for personal computing and enterprise computing. We have a strong point of view at Microsoft that expands the work we’re doing in Windows, the work we’re doing in our hardware, the work we’re doing in search with Bing, the work we’re doing in Office and the work we’re doing on the phone,” Hough said.

“All these things are coming together to tell a story how people work, communicate and collaborate in a brand new way. Office is a very large part of that and I’m very excited about the work we’re doing in this field,” he added.

Asides from these talking points, Ballmer spoke with a lot of excitement about the new Office, Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface. He slated 2012 as one of Microsoft’s most important years ever.

“It is an amazing time to be at Microsoft. The Windows 8 launch is right around the corner with availability coming in October. In a sense, it feels a lot to us like 1995. While individually I think the new Office and Windows 8 are quite remarkable, together I think they’re quite magical. In this case we took the extra step,” Ballmer said.

“We said we need a piece of hardware that really shows off this uncompromised experience between work and play, and so with the Microsoft Surface and the full range of Office productivity available on that device, and on the full range of Windows 8 devices from our partners, I think you almost go beyond magical to something that is just incredibly exciting,” he added.

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