Microsoft said Thursday that its latest Office suite has been released to manufacturing, although consumers won’t find it under their Christmas tree.

In fact, the timing of the Office release will be spread out over at least two months, which Microsoft said was necessary to allow various market segments to enjoy the best experience.

Specifically, customers who purchase a Windows RT tablet Oct. 26 will receive a free preview version of Office, with only the core apps — Word, PowerPoint, Excel and the oft-overlooked OneNote.

In mid-November, volume-licensing customers with Software Assurance will be able to download the Office 2013 applications as well as Office products including SharePoint 2013, Lync 2013 and Exchange 2013.

That’s also when IT professionals and developers will be able to download the final version via TechNet or MSDN subscriptions, and when the new features will be available Office 365 subscribers.

But consumers? Microsoft isn’t saying with any precision. A standalone download of Office will have to wait until the first quarter of 2013.

Microsoft indicated the staggered rollout is deliberate.

“Microsoft’s bringing their technologies to market through a wide variety of channels for organizations, IT pros, developers, and consumers and as on-premises products as well as cloud services available in retail, online and from partners,” a company representative said in an emailed statement. “The company is taking time to make sure that the experience customers get through each of these channels is excellent.”

Still, the company has traditionally released its software early to developers via MSDN and TechNet; Microsoft released Windows 8 via MSDN and TechNet Aug. 15 — 69 days before the scheduled launch Oct. 25. Adding 69 days to Oct. 25 would put the Office launch on or about Jan. 2, just in time for the Consumer Electronics Show — except that Microsoft has said it won’t participate in CSE anymore.

“This is the most ambitious release of Office we’ve ever done,” wrote Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of the Office division, in a blog post. “It spans the full family of Office applications, servers and cloud services. The new Office has a fresh, touch friendly design that works beautifully on Windows 8 and unlocks modern scenarios in social, reading, note-taking, meetings and communications. We are proud to achieve this milestone and are eager to deliver this exciting release to our customers.”

The Office Versions

Microsoft will sell three versions of the traditional Office suite: Home & Student ($139.99), Home & Business ($219.99), and Professional ($399.99). The first two versions will be licensed forever for either one Mac or PC, except for the Professional version, which is PC-only.

Office 365 will be sold in two versions: Home Premium ($99.99 per household per year) and Small Business Premium ($149.99 per person per year). Each household that buys Office 365 Home Premium can install it on some combination of five Macs and PCs. Small businesses pay by employee – that’s just under $300 per year for two, and up from there. (Check out our earlier post on exactly what each Office version offers for what price, as well as our advice on what version to buy.)

Koenigsbauer said there are more launch details to come. In the meantime, consumers can continue to try out the consumer preview before the launch, whenever it is.