Microsoft nudges Office 365 Home users to the cloud

Cloud-based subscription service for Office 365 Home Premium offers good value and convenience.

By Mike Heck, Network World |  Cloud Computing, Microsoft, Microsoft Office

Microsoft has been dishing out various flavors of Office 2013 since November 2012, when enterprises with volume license plans got first access to the finished software. In mid-January, employees at those companies could buy a discounted copy as part of Microsoft's Home Use Program. And Microsoft recently took the wraps off Office 365 Home Premium, which we took a look at.

Office 2013 is available at retail at prices ranging from $139 to $399 for use on a single PC. But Microsoft's pricing model, which allows users to install Office 365 Home Premium on a total of five PCs, Macs or Windows tablets for $8.34 per month or $99.99 a year, is clearly geared toward getting individuals and businesses to adopt Office 365 services.

Office 365 Home Premium includes downloadable versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher. And, in addition to the five PCs, apps can be temporarily streamed to other devices on demand or you're able to do light editing with Web App versions of the software - both options don't count against your license tally.

Office 2013: Everything IT needs to know 

The math works out like this: If you're part of a large family or an independent business person with multiple systems, Office 365 could save you decent money compared to the minimum $139 cost (Home and Student) of buying the software for each computer; further, at that price, you don't get Outlook, Access and Publisher. And to make subscriptions more enticing, Office 365 Home Premium includes 20GB of SkyDrive online storage and 60 minutes a month of Skype international calling (together valued at about $160 per year).

And now some of the nuts and bolts. Office 365 Home Premium is technically a cloud service. You sign in to Office.com to manage your subscription, and documents are stored in SkyDrive by default. But the Office applications are still installed on your PC. The point Microsoft emphasizes is that the latest Office 2013 version will automatically download when you're online - and the company is committed to a quarterly cycle of bug fixes and enhancements. Put another way, no more manually installing fixes, security patches and service packs - and reduced wait time for new features.

Easy to manage, easy to use

Getting started with Office 365 Home Premium is simple. I visited the setup website, entered my product key, logged in, and selected the option to install the software. After about 20 minutes, the full Office 2013 suite had downloaded and was ready to use.

The My Account page lets you install Office on additional systems, deactivate a computer, and perform other tasks, such as activating your Skype World minutes. It's probably no surprise, but Office requires Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac OS X version 10.5.8 or higher. Microsoft previously released Office for Windows Phone 8 (preinstalled on Windows Phone 8 handsets). However, the company is not talking about any plans for native Office apps on Apple iOS or Android.

Even so, I had good results editing Word docs and PowerPoint presentations on a third-generation iPad using the Web apps through Google Chrome browser.

Significantly, when you use Office - whether on a Windows PC, tablet or phone - formatting and styles remain intact between devices. I found documents retain their fidelity across hardware. Moreover, my default settings (such as fonts) were maintained no matter which system I used for editing.

Your main My Office page also serves as portal into your documents stored on SkyDrive. From here you also launch Office on Demand (Microsoft's Click-2-Run technology) - a process that takes less than five minutes to download and install one application, such as Word. This could be valuable if you need to use a PC that doesn't have Office installed. When you're done, just close the application and it's removed from the PC. Also notable, this process does not disturb any installed earlier versions of Office, such as 2010.

Sleek and simple design

Microsoft has been very aggressive in showcasing Office through various preview versions, so there weren't any real surprises with the shipping of Office 2013 applications - mainly a few cosmetics to improve usability. Still, it's worth recapping some of the major changes from Office 2010 and prior. Office 365 was made for Windows 8, and I tested Home Premium on a variety of desktop and laptops (both touch and non-touch) running Windows 8 Professional and Enterprise. Office 365 has the same beautiful design that's clean and user focused - devoid of extraneous animations and screen clutter.

When run in tablet mode, applications have larger touch points and more streamlined ribbon menus that free screen real estate and improve usability.

One of the more valuable new features of Microsoft Word 2013, I feel, is the ability to edit PDF documents; Word makes content (such as paragraphs, lists and tables) act like Word documents. Read mode automatically reflows text into columns to fit the screen, which is great for small screens. I also found tap-and-zoom features helpful to enlarge tables and images within documents; you can also expand and collapse sections, which makes working with large documents easier.

Besides one place to store documents, I quickly found SkyDrive improves collaboration. For example, I provided colleagues with a link to one document and we could all contribute edits. Although Microsoft promotes this feature as useful for family members working on personal documents, such as a vacation agenda, there's potential for sharing work documents. This feature seems a bit behind Google Docs, which permits live simultaneous editing by multiple people. In the case of Word, you have to save your document before you can see edits by others - but that's a slight inconvenience given the superior formatting and other features of Word.

The revamped Excel does a better job learning your data entry patterns and auto completing the remaining information. Then, Excel suggests PivotTables for the best way to summarize your data. Additionally, I appreciated the way Excel recommends the best charts based on patterns in your data.

PowerPoint Presenter View was one of the first features Microsoft demonstrated last summer, and it continues to be one of the most valuable additions. When working with a second screen (such as a projector) this behind-the-scenes tool let me see upcoming slides and notes, while my audience viewed the actual presentation.

And co-authoring is possible with PowerPoint, just like Word. I worked on a presentation with the desktop Office software while a colleague made changes through the PowerPoint Web app in a browser - and the formatting of the final was perfect.

Access isn't typically given a lot of credit, but it delivers some impressive ways to organize your life and business. Access 2013 opens existing desktop databases (ACCDB and legacy MDB files). When creating new databases, Access handles the complexities of building fields, rules, and relationships. The one disadvantage of Home Premium is that you can't host your databases online; for that, you need Office 365 Enterprise, where the databases are published to SharePoint Online. For that reason, a product such as FileMaker would be more appropriate for putting personal-type databases on the web.

Apps to Go

It seems no cloud solution is complete without a supporting ecosystem. And much like Windows 8 has an App Store, Office 365 features an Office Store, which you access through your Office.com account. Once you select an app from the store, it's quickly loaded into the supported Office product through its ribbon bar.

There's a smattering of Apps for Office right now, most of them free, and the majority generally useful. For instance, the free Merriam-Webster dictionary works in Word, Excel and Outlook. But, like any store, some offerings have limited value. LegalZoom, for instance, only directs you to their web site, where you have to purchase one of their services.

With Windows 8, Microsoft proved it's willing to take big risks - from extensive user interface changes to architecting the product for multiple form factors. The same bold moves are apparent with Office 365. The applications in this suite, already among the best in class, now operate easier and have some productivity improvements.

Microsoft is clearly no novice to cloud computing - with years of experience in e-mail (now Outlook.com) and Office 365 for business. The fundamental question is if consumers are ready (and are willing to pay) for the next leap and subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium.

In Microsoft's view, the economic equation adds up to an easy choice, especially if you want the latest software and have multiple devices. And I generally agree. The company says it's committed to rapid updates and feature enhancements - and has invested heavily in sophisticated systems to track bugs and help with rapid development. In itself, that's representative of the new thinking that's been happening within Microsoft for a while.

But for those with one or two PCs and who don't need the latest features - and that may be a large audience - these potential buyers may be satisfied with older Office software, or Google Docs and other free alternatives. There's also pressure from Box, Dropbox and similar cloud storage vendors. As a result, Microsoft's success with Office 365 Home Premium is not a given, but the company will likely get a good number of users switching to subscriptions.

Heck manages portals for a large pharma company and writes about enterprise applications. He can be reached at mikeheck@comcast.net.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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