Free Microsoft Office Web Apps to Take on Google

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At its Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans today, Microsoft formally announced Microsoft Office 2010, along with 2010 versions of Sharepoint server, Visio, and Project. But perhaps the biggest news of the Office 2010 announcement is that the Redmond software giant plans to go head-to-head with Google in offering lightweight, browser-based versions of its mainstream productivity applications that can be used from anywhere a user can get Web access—and for Windows Live users, they’ll be available for free.

“Office 2010 is the premier productivity solution across PCs, mobile phones* and browsers,” said senior VP of Microsoft’s business division Chris Capossela, in a statement. “From broadcast and video editing in PowerPoint, new data visualization capabilities in Excel, and co-authoring in Word, we are delivering technology to help people work smarter and faster from virtually any location using any device.”

The Web-based versions of Office applications are another front in the escalating competition between Microsoft and Google…and another instance where Microsoft is late to join the battle, seeing how Google Apps have already been on the market for three years. Nonetheless, Microsoft maintains a powerful hold on desktop productivity software with its Office application suite, and promises the Web versions of its Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote applications will maintain the look and feel of a document regardless of the device being used to view or edit it.

Microsoft hasn’t announced requirements for its Office Web applications, but it’s reasonable at this point to assume that Microsoft will bind the applications tightly to its own Internet Explorer browser; users of other browsers or non-Windows operating systems will likely be left in the dark.

The company plans to make the Office Web editions of its Office applications available for free via Windows Live, meaning more than 400 million users will potentially have access to them. Microsoft will also make them available on-premises to volume license partners for Microsoft offices, and as part of Microsoft Online Services, where customers will be able to purchase access to Office Web applications as part of a hosted service offering. Microsoft did not outline any pricing plans.

Microsoft is opening a Technical Preview of Office 2010 and Visio 2010 to all attendees of the Worldwide Partner Conference. The company expects to ship Office 2010 (and roll out Office Web) in the first half of 2010.

The free versions of Office Web are likely to tie in heavily with Microsoft’s existing ad-supported Web sites and services, including the new Bing search engine. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will be able to generate enough advertising and partner revenue through the free versions of the applications to make up for lost sales of the desktop versions of is applications: the most popular edition of Microsoft Office currently for sale includes the four applications that Microsoft intends to offer for free in Office Web. Given that most users never tap the deep feature sets in applications like Excel and Word, Office Web stands a good chance of cannibalizing sales of Office’s desktop apps.

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