Home Microsoft’s Latest Jab at Google Docs: Albany?

Microsoft’s Latest Jab at Google Docs: Albany?

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft’s online office strategy has grown increasingly muddled, while Google has emerged has the clear leader in the web office space with their Google Docs product. Microsoft has been reluctant to cannibalize any of its cash cow desktop office software business by introducing a web-based version of its popular Office suite. Instead, Redmond has been trying to complement its desktop offering with web services. The latest attempt is codenamed “Albany.”

Last week, reports were surfacing that Albany would be a web-based version of Microsoft’s slimmer Works software suite — which includes word processing, spreadsheets, calendars, and a simple database and retails for $39.95. That’s not the first time the “online Works” rumor has surfaced.

In September of 2006, Reuters reported that Microsoft was considering releasing an online version of Works to preempt the then unreleased Google Docs and Spreadsheets Internet application. A year later, in August 2007, a rumor surfaced that Works was going free and ad-supported in an attempt to compete with Google, but would still be a desktop application. Neither rumor panned out. Works remains a for-pay, desktop application that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Microsoft’s web office strategy.

Like the previous rumors before it, evidence is now mounting that Albany too is not related to Works. So what is Albany? Mary-Jo Foley reported this morning that it is apparently going to be a so-called “ValueBox” offering that bundles three Microsoft Office components. According to one source, Albany will bring together Windows Live OneCare, Office Live Workspace, and Office Home and Student Edition.

The term “ValueBox,” which was taken from a screenshot of the Albany beta sign up page that Foley got her hands on, seems to indicate that the Albany bundle might be offered at a discount, which in turn points to this being part of Microsoft’s attempt to draw users away from the freely offered Google Docs online office suite. As Foley points out, Microsoft might be smart to target students, who have been one of their biggest user bases for Office Live Workspace, and whose generally tight budgets make Google’s free offering especially attractive. (Google Docs is so far not generally considered ready for the enterprise.)

But will it work? We published a head-to-head feature comparison of Google Docs and Office Live Workspace earlier this month and found that both services have a very similar feature set. The main difference, though, is that Google Docs is a web application, which means that it 1. doesn’t require desktop software to be installed, and 2. allows for things like real-time online collaboration. Those are two very alluring features. Plus, I’m not convinced that Microsoft could offer enough value in its “ValueBox” to really attract students. Many schools offer Office Home and Student at such a deeply discounted rate (for example, my girlfriend — who is a student — recently purchased a copy from her university’s bookstore for about $10), that it seems unlikely that Microsoft would discount the bundle far enough to compete with current student pricing.

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