Whether Windows 8's radically re-imagined usage model catches on with tablet and PC users will depend in large part upon the role Microsoft Office apps will play. If it looks too much like Office 2010, then having Windows 8 relegate Office to the "Desktop" side while mobile-style apps take over the "Metro" side, won't make much sense.
This morning, Microsoft gave out the first signal of how the shift will happen. The first technical preview of The Software Probably Known as "Office 2013" has made its way to select testers, in advance of a public beta now scheduled for this summer.
With the Windows 8 public beta scheduled to begin next month, Microsoft will need some window of visibility for Office on Windows 8 in order for customers to evaluate whether the migration will be worth it. In a carefully crafted blog post this morning, the company's Corporate Vice President for Office, P. J. Hough, listed four categories of distribution vehicles for Office-branded services, with #1 on that list being "cloud services."
"With Office 15, for the first time ever, we will simultaneously update our cloud services, servers, and mobile and PC clients for Office, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and Visio," Hough wrote. "Quite simply, Office 15 will help people work, collaborate, and communicate smarter and faster than ever before."
Listing "cloud services" first implies that "Office 15" (its temporary code name, although there was never an "Office 13") will be more centered around functionality delivered from the cloud. Theoretically, this could be done by delivering "Metro-style" versions of Office apps that are optimized for Windows 8, and that are licensed to customers of Office 365 for use anywhere. This while the "classic" Office apps continue to be maintained and licensed as part of the same package.
Still, judging from the company's long prior history with Office beta programs, a late January milestone for the Technical Preview implies that general availability may not yet be feasible until at least Q1 2013. With tremendous importance being placed on Windows 8's ability to show up in time for the 2012 holiday season - if not for back-to-school - then the company may need to consider making the Office 15 public beta available for pre-installation on new tablets and ultrabook PCs (Intel's new, thinner form factor) directly through retail outlets.
UPDATE: A Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to RWW this afternoon that "cloud services" in the context of this announcement refers to "the service components of each of the Microsoft Office products." The spokesperson offered as one example "Office Web Apps for Office." This characterization is in keeping with expectations.