CES 2012: Mystery of the Missing Office 15

The last Steve Ballmer keynote has come and gone, and even after the company’s overt effort to reduce expectations about product announcements, if you listen carefully, you may still be able to hear the faint sound of a gospel choir chanting about one of the few remaining expectations that was left unmet last night: There was no word on a possible Metro-style preview of Office 15.

In fact, the company’s Tami Reller lowered expectations even further by repeating a demonstration of the existing Office 2010 running in a late build of Windows 8, alongside a Metro-style newsreader app, with the two worlds divided from one another by the partition that Microsoft calls “Snap.” While Reller’s point was that the two worlds could co-exist, there was one world many attendees wish they could have at least peeked into.

It didn’t help that Microsoft’s corporate Office Twitter feed trumpeted the start of Ballmer’s keynote as if an announcement were forthcoming.

During the keynote, it was reiterated that Microsoft would release its next “milestone” of Windows 8 in late February. That term “milestone” is apparently in preference to the earlier “public beta,” which suggests a higher level of tester input. While the final Windows 8 itself may be expected in Q4 at the earliest, prospective customers worry about not having enough of a testing window for Windows 8 tablets with the new Office on-board.

It matters, because there’s a big purchasing decision to be made. Yesterday, we reported that Forrester research data shows enterprises appear to be postponing their cloud deployments while they purchase new iPads. Those purchases put a dent in the firm’s forecast for capital spending for cloud in 2012. If CxOs could see Office 15 running in the Metro style on Windows 8, the results could defer their purchases of tablets as clients until Q1 2013 – assuming they like what they saw. Office 2010 does run on Windows 7 tablets today, but having to type on-screen while at the same time using the PC-style Ribbon control to manipulate the program, results in a work environment that’s not unlike peering out at the world through Robocop’s helmet.

Any kind of productivity applications suite that runs in the Windows 8 “Metro” world, and that carries the Office brand – whether it be conventional software or an online SaaS like Office Web Apps – would serve as validation for prospective customers that Microsoft believes in its own product. If it can’t get Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook to run – even in some limited format – in Metro, even while separate versions continue to be developed for the Desktop world, customers may perceive Windows 8’s launch the same way they perceived Windows Phone 7’s launch: as incomplete.

During what might otherwise have been an opportunity for stoking at least some customer excitement, Reller instead took the opportunity to demonstrate the wonders of finger-painting on the same Samsung prototype tablet released last September.

Microsoft spokespersons declined comment on Office 15’s status for this story.

Demonstration of a Desktop app and a Metro-style app, and efforts to switch between the two, in the Windows 8 Developer Preview from last September.

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