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Office 2013 is now predicted to be released on 29 January (at least in the US and Canada) but market place confusion reigns.

It is not just about the four retail versions (Home and Student [this is similar to the version included in Windows 8 RT tablets and Smartphones]; Home and Business; Standard; and Professional Plus) but also the five cloud versions of Office 365 (University; Home Premium; Small Business Premium; Midsize Business; and Enterprise and Government). In addition there will be Academic, Volume licensing and OEM (computer manufacturer bundled) versions as well. Let’s also throw in the rumour that Office 365 may in the future run on Apple iOS and Android Tablets (should not be too problematic to port its RT version given that most tablets run ARM based processors). Phew…

Let’s clarify a few points first.

MS Office suite comprises Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, Access, and Lync (was called Communicator) - not all are in each version. Additional Office programs (i.e. not packaged as part of Office) include Project and Visio and then there are server products such as Exchange (mail), Web Apps (internet serving) and SharePoint - a corporate environment would normally use these.

Office “retail” means you download or buy it at a retail store and install it on a PC (the updated Mac version is rumoured for release in 2014).  To avoid confusion, this is how most people to date bought and used Office - client-side computing and you can still do that if you wish.

Office 365 means you rent the software, install a local version on the computing device and either use the internet “cloud” (MS calls this SkyDrive) for storage and more features or use your hard disk for less features. It works on Windows 7 or 8 and you need an internet connection and a Microsoft account or a Microsoft Online Services ID (not unlike Google Docs which requires a Gmail account).

What are the features and issues?

Here is my take on some of the important issues:

Touch interface. I think it’s reasonable to assume that for finer work you would use a stylus so let’s just put any negative comments down to needing to get used to Touch. Touch is all about larger icons (Tiles as MS called them) and “de-complicating” menus and sub-menus etc. The “Ribbon” is not too bad at doing that and ducks out of the way when you don’t need it. I think that the bigger plus is that most Windows devices have USB ports and you can still use an external mouse or keyboard even on a tablet. I also think that it is unfair to compare using Office on a 24” desktop monitor to a 10” tablet or a 3.5” Windows phone (but at least you can do it!).

Is Office 365 as good as Office "Retail"? Office cannot afford to make huge changes to its look and feel and each version has the same functionality. Office 2013 has the crisper (no Aero) feel of the Windows 8 Metro interface.

Rent or Buy? I am not yet going to comment especially as we don’t know Aussie pricing (the table in this article is from the US). Whether it is better to rent or buy will come down to what version you need, number of computing devices and whatever deals are ultimately out there with a new PC, notebook or tablet. Make no mistake MS will gently herd us towards rental by strategies like allowing Office 365 Home Premium to be installed on up to 5 devices (a Household licence). Given that Gen Y’s (and younger) live for today renting will ultimately be more popular and to hell with longer term costs. Small businesses may also opt to rent gaining an immediate tax deduction rather than having to depreciate it over time.

Word now opens and saves PDF documents and you can edit content – text, tables, almost anything in a familiar Word environment. On-line web video can now be embedded – YouTube and more. Great!

Excel is already too complex for most but it now has the ability to access web data opening up interesting possibilities.

PowerPoint gets Facebook and Flickr picture compatibility. At last Presenter view allows slide notes to show on the notebook screen and not on the data projector.

Outlook has improved ActiveSync for Contacts, Calendar and Mail and supports most popular email services. It supports Faceook and Linkedin integration. Skype 6.1 also has Outlook integration.

OneNote is a sleeper that may finally find greater use as a digital notebook with better support of finger friendly gestures and handwriting etc.

Perhaps the strongest reason to upgrade will be the enhanced collaboration and cloud capabilities. I like the idea of SkyDrive and being able to read and edit Office documents from any internet connected Windows 7 or 8 device - including basic Office in all Windows 8 [RT] Tablets was a shrewd move. I like the way you can stream a version of Office 365 (Office on Demand) to any PC and once finished it is automatically removed – handy for travellers.

Sure you can do some of this with Apple and Android devices and work alike programs – perhaps not just as easily or consistently. It will certainly take the shine of the competitor’s current sparkle – Office everywhere!

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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