Microsoft’s Office Hierarchy Begins Taking Shape

As cloud computing and Software-as-a-Service continue to take hold, Microsoft’s flagship Office productivity suite now appears less a standalone product than a hierarchy of services, each with different levels of functionality for different markets. The big question: Will your version of Office do everything you need it to?

On Wednesday, sources told the Verge that Microsoft plans a “preview” version of Office for the basic Windows RT version of the Surface tablet. That version of Office will lose support for Visual Basic, macros and third-party add-ons, specifically to optimize the Surface’s battery life. The preview version will apparently be dubbed “Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview,” the Verge reported.

If that’s true, Office functionality will essentially be spread across three tiers: Office Web Apps for the most basic consumer use, Office RT for basic tablet use and the full-fledged Office boxed software product, also available in an Office 365 subscription model. There’s also a fourth tier that Microsoft hasn’t really talked about: Office for Mac, which will remain on the “legacy” model of the existing Office platform.

Microsoft’s official line is that nothing’s done until it’s done. “We have not finalized packaging for the next release of Office,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said via email.

Still, we can draw some basic conclusions. First, Office users will get different levels of functionality depending upon the device they’re working on. Second, the “premium” experience will still come with Microsoft’s Office/Office 365 for Windows 8 machines. And third, all Office users will benefit from working within a connected environment.

The notion of an Office hierarchy really isn’t new; Microsoft packages different versions of Office 2010 for “Home and Students” and for “professionals,” But those packages have typically been differentiated by which applications a particular version of the Office suite includes, not so much the functionality of the included apps.

The Guiding Forces of Office

According to Rob Helm, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft, Office’s evolution is being shaped by two forces:

“Microsoft is trying to extend Office through the Web and on portable devices, and that’s forced it to rethink how it extends Office, so that it has a solution that extends to all these different places that Office runs,” Helm said. “But that means saying goodbye to a lot of old buddies for a lot of Office users.”

Those “buddies” represent the legacy of macros and Visual Basic helper applications, which corporations have used to customize Office for their own use. Directions on Microsoft, for example, has traditionally used a VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) module to assist its analysts in creating and displaying Microsoft’s org [organization] charts, Helm said.

If Surface users want to run VBA code, however, they will need to have the more expensive Surface Pro, which will run the full-fledged Windows 8 operating system as well as the standard Office suite.

“It’s pretty clear that the technology that Microsoft has been promoting for applications, Visual Basic, has been left behind by technical trends: the Web and tablets,” Helm said. “Microsoft is trying to get to a new generation of technology and cutting out the old technology in Windows RT is the first sign that the old technology is going away, and the new Web-based Office development is coming in.”

And what is an Office app? “Essentially a Web page integrated into Office as custom content, very similar to how iFrames integrate with other pages on the Web,” Rolando Jimenez, a program manager for Microsoft, wrote in a blog post this week. Specifically, the app is a Web page, most often with a Javascript pointer to the Office Javascript library, plus a lightweight XML description of how the app interacts with Office. Apps will work offline, Microsoft said.

Office Store Open for Business

In other Office developments, Microsoft opened the Office Store this week, where users can download a Merriam-Webster dictionary plugin for Word, for example, or an Olympics medal tracker app for Microsoft Excel. As with the Microsoft Windows Store, Microsoft will take 30% of the revenue from each paid app sale.

The Office Store is also the showcase for the new Web-based Office app model. Developers can still use Visual Basic and Visual Studio for Office, but Microsoft won’t allow versions of the app to be available via the Office Store, Brian Jones, Group Program Manager on the Office Solutions Framework team, said this week.

Helm - from Directions on Microsoft - said he believed that the VBA model would prove to be a “real challenge” to the ARM architecture underlying the lower-priced Surface RT tablet, another key reason for its omission. But, he added, he also believed that Microsoft would inevitably extend the Office app model to the Surface RT tablet and even Office Web Apps.

“Eventually Microsoft will want to extend apps to where-ever Office runs,” Helm said.

“If the Office Store doesn’t support Office RT, that’s because Office RT hasn’t broken cover yet,” Helm added.

What About Mac Office?

So far, Office for Mac has been conspicuously left out of the discussion. Microsoft has said only that the new model for Office apps won’t apply to the next version of Office for the Mac. The most significant recent changes for Office for Mac 2011 has been adding cloud storage via Microsoft’s SkyDrive and support for Apple’s “Mountain Lion” release.

“You’ll see that this is really just the first step in a new direction for Office programmability,” Brian Jones, group program manager of the Office Solutions group, wrote in response to a user question. “We would love to have had support across all of the platforms where Office runs, but for the first version we weren’t able to accomplish that. We [are] instead targeting the Windows client and the Web companion, but designed the app model in a way that we can start to add other platforms as well as we move forward.”

In some sense, that places Office for Mac in the same “legacy” category as Office 2010, leaving Mac Office users on the outside looking in at the new app model. That could push Mac users to competing productivity applications, from Google Docs to Apple’s own iWork suite.

What About Windows Phone?

Microsoft also hasn’t talked much about how Windows Phone and Office will interact, although Paul Thurott has noted that Office 365 will set up a live tile on the Windows Phone home screen, and users will be able to access a Lync client (for unified communications) and gain access to SharePoint collaboration sites.

Microsoft’s Office vision is simple, yet powerful: a connected workplace, where the appropriate form of Office functionality is available on whatever device you’re using. But there are issues, too, because not every version of Office will support everything you may need to do. Some business users, for example, will realize that their little bit of legacy VBA code may keep them from relying on lower-priced, lower-powered ARM-based devices running Windows 8 RT - including the entry-level Surface.

 

Microsoft sign image courtesy of Shutterstock.