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Billed as the most important product that Microsoft offers, CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage today to introduce a new generation of the company's flagship Office product, with a preview edition available for download today.
Microsoft held a special event in San Francisco on Monday afternoon to take the wraps off its next-generation Office product ahead of its shift to Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 this fall.
"I would tell you that this is the most ambitious release to date," Ballmer touted prior to unveiling a demo of the latest Office suite.
The latest generation of Office is built around Windows 8, including the touchscreen experience for its forthcoming Surface tablet. Office 365 is built around social and the cloud while putting the emphasis more on subscriptions than the older model of purchasing a licensed copy of software for every major release.
Of course, the core of Office remains the same, with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote and Outlook all present and accounted for in the latest version. But the latest version jettisons support for Windows XP and Windows Vista, requiring either Windows 7 or 8 for installation.
While there's no word yet on pricing, Office 365 will be available in four flavors: Home Premium, Small Business Premium, ProPlus and Enterprise. The four packages introduce what Ballmer calls an "Office as a service" approach which will ultimately include a Mac version as well in an effort to bring that platform more in line with what's available on Windows. (Sadly, there are no screenshots or further details on when that might be.)
For most users, Office 365 Home Premium will be plenty, allowing installation on up to five PCs and offering 20GB of SkyDrive storage as well as all of the key apps detailed above, as well as Access and Publisher. Microsoft is also bundling 60 minutes of Skype credit each month with the Home Premium package.
The remaining trio of plans are focused more on business users, with Small Business Premium aimed at up to 10 employees, each of which can install the software on five PCs, adding server-centric InfoPath and Lync to the lineup. ProPlus jacks up the user accounts to 25, while keeping the same applications included with the Small Business Premium package.
While taking a similar approach to Adobe's Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office 365 is intended to be streamed right to an internet-connected computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8, although offline as well as tabletized Windows RT versions are planned.
So what's new with the core applications included in Office 365? Microsoft corporate vice-president Kirk Koenigsbauer took the stage to provide some hands-on demos of how Office 365 will interact with Windows on tablets, PCs and even high-definition, big-screen televisions.
As the anchor of the entire Office suite, Word isn't significantly changed, but the Windows 8 Metro style user interface is certainly on hand. Word 2013 allows for the ability to edit PDF content within the app, as well as embedding web video within Word documents.
You may think it's impossible to add much else to Excel 2013, but Microsoft has introduced a "flash fill" feature for formatting data automatically, along with a new Quick Trend feature offering a chart for analyzing such data in a whole new way.
PowerPoint 2013 will allow users to insert photo content from Facebook, Flickr and other outside services as well as SkyDrive, SharePoint, Office.com Clip Art or the Bing search engine. An improved Presenter View also has plenty to offer for those using a second screen with the app.
Microsoft has saved the majority of its improvements for Outlook 2013, adding new Exchange ActiveSync support for finally bringing true push support to Hotmail and other popular email services. Calendars and contacts will also automatically sync for consumers without the need for a full Exchange server. Outlook also adds Facebook and LinkedIn integration as well.
Windows 7 or 8 users can head to Microsoft's website today to sign up for Office 365 Home Premium Preview and get a taste of what the company has in store for users.
Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter