Microsoft Office 14 set to go online

If loose lips sink ships the next version of Windows and Office are for now staying well afloat and steaming ahead. The software colossus has to date remained tight-lipped when it comes to the 2009 edition of the company’s two cash cows.

It’s the unmistakable legacy of Steven Sinofsky now senior vice president for Windows and previously in charge of Office 2000 through to Office 2007. Sinofsky ran a tight ship during his Office tenure and those habits have taken root at the same time as he exerts the same discipline over at the Windows 7 bunker.

However Office 14 (Microsoft skipped the unlucky ’13’) is working to a strict timetable – and that timetable decrees that Beta 1 should be ready to drop. In fact it indicates that Microsoft is already a little off the pace: Beta 1 was slated for the first half of 2008 and we’ve just nudged into the back end of the year. But we’re willing to cut the ‘Softies a little slack because well we can’t think of the last time such a major release hit the bullseye.

In fact the same timetable suggests that Office 14 should be ready for release in the first half of 2009 and we can’t see that happening. No we’re punting on an RTM (Release To Manufacture) date well into the second half of 2009 which would likely see Office 14 christened as Office 2010.

That would fit nicely into a similar release schedule for Windows 7 (Windows 2010?) and repeat the pattern that’s seen a simultaneous launch of the new versions of Windows and Office in the days of 95 XP and Vista. Let’s face it — Microsoft wants to sell you Windows and Office as a package and figures it’s easiest to do so when people are naturally shelling out for a new PC.

In addition to the aforementioned timetable something else we know about Office 14 is that Microsoft wants it to take a carefully measured step in the direction of online applications and ‘cloud computing’ while helping Office maintain its desktop-resident dominance.

The answer according to Bill gates when he addressed Microsoft’s Office System Developer Conference in San Jose California earlier this year was to extend the model of Outlook Web Access to the rest of the suite so that users could access their applications and data online.

“Outlook Web Access is not the full version of Outlook but if you want to go into a kiosk or an Internet cafe and browse and connect it gives you plenty of functionality” Gates observed in response to a developer’s question from the floor about how Office could compete with Google Apps. “As we look at all the modules (in Office 14) have in mind the equivalent of Outlook Web Access.”

“If you look at spreadsheets maybe you’ll not be able to set up all the data models [online] but you’ll be able to read documents change a few assumptions and try things out” Gates said.

The broader philosophy behind this was expounded by CEO Steve Ballmer last week during Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston Texas. Ballmer re-iterated the company’s belief in what he calls “Software Plus Services”.  This is Microsoft’s own mash-up of the PC platform the Internet and the hardware itself “in which the world moves to integrating … the best of the personal computer with the best of the enterprise with the best of the Internet with the best of devices” Ballmer explained.

“The PC gives you control; the enterprise gives the business control; the Internet gives us scale anytime operation and immediate deployment; and devices give us the convenience of new form factors.”

And the future Ballmer sees “is about having a platform in the cloud just as we have an operating system for the client for the server for devices. (For) deployment the world will insist on a model that I call ‘Click to Run’. That’s kind of the way Web sites today work or HTML works: you click something and it runs. You don’t click (and) hit install you don’t click and configure you click to run. And the model in the Software Plus Services world will be a model of Click to Run”.

“The same thing for Microsoft Office. You’ll see a range of announcements over the next six months about the directions we’re taking with Microsoft Office. We need to make it click to run. We don’t need to make it less full-featured and less functional and less capable but we have to drive it down this path.”