Technologizer

My First 12 Questions About the New Microsoft Office

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Steve Ballmer introduces the new Microsoft Office in San Francisco on July 16, 2012

On Monday afternoon in San Francisco, Microsoft held a press event to unveil its next version of Office, which is now available as a free preview. On any typical day, the launch would easily have been the day’s biggest tech story.

But while Microsoft was still demoing its upcoming software, word broke that Marissa Mayer was quitting Google to become CEO of Yahoo. Suddenly, Microsoft’s news got overshadowed.

Even without the Yahoo bombshell, the Office news is relatively low-key by the standard Microsoft has set lately. This upgrade is nowhere near as radical as Windows 8, and it’s not a shocker like the company’s decision to enter the PC business with its own tablets. Everything about it is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

(MORE: My First 23 Questions About Microsoft’s “Surface” Windows 8 Tablet)

Still, there’s a lot of aggressive evolution in the new Office. It’s the first version of the suite designed for use with fingers as well as keyboards, mice and touchpads. It’s the webbiest edition to date: By default, it stores documents in SkyDrive cloud storage rather than on your hard drive, and it lets your files and settings travel with you from device to device. And Microsoft is going to try to convince consumers to think of Office as a service rather than a piece of boxed software–and to pay for it on an ongoing basis rather than in one lump sum.

Here’s Microsoft’s own brief video summarizing the highlights of what it’s calling “your modern office”–note that it refers to it as a service, not software.

I’ve been playing with the preview apps and will have more thoughts. For now, though, I still have lots of questions about it. Here are a dozen of them.

1. Why isn’t Microsoft introducing a full-on Metro edition of Office? The new Office features versions of OneNote and the Lync universal communications app that are built for Windows 8’s all-new, touch-friendly Metro interface. But the key Office apps–Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook–haven’t been Metro-ized.

Instead, they’re classic Windows apps, but with interfaces that have been tweaked to work better on touch devices. For instance, they have touch modes that make it easier to tap with a finger rather than a mouse pointer, and you can select text by grabbing handles, in a way that’s similar to how it’s done in mobile operating systems. Also, the file-management interfaces in the apps look a lot like Metro even though they’re not officially Metro.

Now, I’m not confused about why Microsoft didn’t release a new Office that only worked on Windows 8 with Metro: It needs an upgrade that will appeal to hundreds of millions of people who aren’t planning to move to Windows 8 any time soon. I also get that no Metro edition of Office would incorporate all of the features which have accumulated in Office over the past few decades; it would have to be a more streamlined product, akin to Apple‘s iWork apps for the iPad.

But you know, I’d be excited about a really good streamlined Metro edition of Office. Plenty of other people would, I suspect. I also think that Windows 8 would benefit hugely from the quick release of some outstanding productivity apps that demonstrate what Metro is capable of doing. (Note: When Apple announced the original iPad, new versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote were part of the keynote.)

I’m not saying that OneNote and Lync won’t help Windows 8’s cause, but they’re not Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

2. If not now, when? I assume that there will be Metro editions of all of Office’s major programs someday. And I hope that someday doesn’t have to wait for the next sweeping upgrade to the whole Office system in 2015, 2016 or thereabouts. Maybe Microsoft is working on them right now.

3. Will someone other than Microsoft build the first Metro word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package? Seems like it could be an opportunity for somebody.

4. Is the new Office a sign that the old Windows interface is still a living, breathing thing? I’ve tended to assume that Windows 8’s Desktop mode, which lets you run non-Metro software, is there for–I hate this term, but it applies here–legacy apps. My assumption has been that anything interesting that happens in the world of Windows software henceforth would involve Metro, and that the Desktop would feel frozen in time.

The fact that Windows 8 doesn’t make many significant changes to the Desktop–except for eliminating its Start button–seemed like evidence to support my theory.

But the non-Metro Office interface isn’t more of the same. It’s cleaner and more modern-looking than the average Windows application, and tries, like Metro, to address people using touch screens, keyboards, mice and combinations thereof.

I think it’s a given that other major developers of Windows applications will continue to release Desktop apps for a long time to come; I wonder if they, like Microsoft, will attempt to freshen up their interfaces for an ever-changing world.

5. Do consumers want to pay for Office as a service? Steve Ballmer thinks they do, or at least he said so repeatedly at Microsoft’s event on Monday. The company is going to introduce a home version of Office 365, its business service which bundles the Office apps with web services for a monthly fee, and which always entitles you to download the newest versions of everything.

Microsoft would like Office 365 to be the default version of Office, with the shrinkwrapped software available as an alternative for pigheaded cheapskates and Luddites. That’s an understandable viewpoint for the company to have: Office 365 is an annuity for the company, and prevents pesky Office users from buying one copy of the suite and then spurning upgrades indefinitely.

I’m curious to see whether the company can convince the majority of real people, most of whom are comfortable paying for Office on an on-off basis, to turn into Office subscribers.

6. How much will the consumer version of Office 365 cost? Businesses pay $20 a month per user for the version that includes the full Windows suite. Office 365 Home Premium is going to include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher and Access and let you use them on up to five computers and other devices, plus 20GB of additional SkyDrive storage and an hour of Skype calling time. It’s a lot of stuff, but if Microsoft truly wants it to largely replace the boxed version of Office, it’s going to have to make the price really tempting to huge numbers of price-conscious folks.

7. How much will the non-subscription version of Office cost? The Home and Student version is currently $149.99 (or $119.99 as a download). With Windows 8, Microsoft is offering a limited-time upgrade offer for just $39.99–way less than it’s charged for the operating system in the past. Will it try a similar strategy with Office by slashing its price?

8. Will Office make sense in Windows RT? On PCs that use x86 processors, Windows 8 will run all existing applications along with new Metro ones. But Windows RT, the version of Windows 8 for tablets with ARM processors, can’t run third-party Desktop apps. So Office, with its non-Metro interface, will be an outlier.

While most x86 Windows computers will continue to be conventional PCs with keyboards and touchpads, Windows RT is meant for tablets. That means that Windows RT users will be more likely to use Office entirely through its touch interface. Will they find it smooth and efficient or clumsy?

Also: We now know that the Windows RT versions of the Office apps will be full-strength editions, not reduced-functionality ones designed for casual use. Microsoft presumably sees that as a major advantage: The new Office will be way more powerful than Apple’s iWork programs and other iPad productivity programs. It’ll be interesting to see if Windows RT users agree–or whether the new Office feels like bloatware on a tablet.

9. Wither the web apps? Microsoft hasn’t had a whole lot to say about the future of the Office Web Apps, the web-based versions of major Office apps. I’ve always had a sense that they were created by a Microsoft that gritted its teeth and built them as an unavoidable response to Google Apps, not because it genuinely wanted to offer a web suite. I’m still not sure whether the company still sees them as a quick-and-dirty substitute for Office in its real, desktop-based form, or something that might conceivably become the dominant version of Office someday.

10. How does Office for the Mac fit in? If you subscribe to Office 365, you’ll have the right to download Office’s Mac version as well as the Windows apps. Right now, Office for the Mac is substantially different from the Windows one–with a different interface and fewer features and apps. (I also find parts of it outlandishly slow.) Opinions may vary, but I’d be happy if the next version of Mac Office, whenever it shows up, is a closer counterpart to the Windows one.

11. iPad? Android? Back in February, The Daily’s Matt Hickey reported that an iPad version of Office was expected to arrive “in the coming weeks.” Many weeks have since passed, and there are no signs of such a product being imminent. (If Microsoft were ready to announce it, it presumably would have done so on Monday.)

The current version of the rumor now says that Office for the iPad will show up in November–and so will Office for Android, which Hickey said was not in the works. I hope it’s all true, but the scuttlebutt has been so unreliable to date that I’m not going to assume anything just yet.

12. Is there an impending office-suite war? Microsoft may be synonymous with Windows, but Office and related products are actually a bigger, more profitable business. So the new Office is at least as important to Microsoft’s bottom line and general future well-being as Windows 8 is.

Right now, Office dominates its product category almost as utterly as it ever did. Yet the market is changing so rapidly that it’s not hard to envision scenarios in which it’s less of a given that the vast majority of people who use office-productivity tools use Office. By being more service-like, the new version will compete with Google Apps more directly than ever; by running on tablets, it’ll be more directly comparable with Apple’s iWork apps and other software for the iPad. I get the sense that Microsoft wants Office to be ready for whatever the future may hold, including the possibility of the business model which has worked so well for Office for so long being far less of a sure thing.

Your answers to the above questions–or speculation about them, at least–would be welcome. So would any first impressions you have of the Office preview if you’ve downloaded it.