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Office for Windows on ARM: Free or not?

Analysts parse the incomplete info Microsoft's shared so far

February 14, 2012 06:40 AM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft's announcement last week that it will "include" four Office apps with Windows on ARM has analysts parsing the news like intelligence agencies that once tried to figure out what went on inside the Kremlin by poring over photos of who stood where on the Red Square reviewing stand.

Some analysts say that Office will be bundled along with Windows on ARM (WOA) sans a separate price tag. Others believe Microsoft would never give away one of its most precious possessions.

All acknowledged that Microsoft has not provided enough information, and that details may not emerge until just weeks before the company wraps up development.

Microsoft, meanwhile, declined to answer questions about Office apps on WOA, or to clarify what Steven Sinofsky, the head of the Windows group, meant in an 8,600-word missive published last week.

"What we know is that there will be some level of capability to those Office apps, but what we don't know is who pays for it," said Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC who was briefed by Microsoft last week.

Hilwa and fellow IDC analyst Al Gillen interpreted Microsoft's announcement as confirming that the Office apps included with WOA -- touch-enabled versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that run in the operating system's limited desktop mode -- would be bundled with the operating system, free to users.

At least some users.

"They're claiming it's a full version of Office, but that's it's a 'consumer version,'" said Michael Silver of Gartner, who was also briefed by Microsoft. "But we're not sure what that means."

Some, including influential blogger Mary Jo Foley, who put forward a trio of theories Monday, have speculated that the Office apps included with WOA will be analogous to Office Starter 10, the ad-supported, bare-bones edition bundled on many new PCs. Microsoft essentially gives away Office Starter 2010 in the hope that it will convince some users to buy "up" to a full-priced version.

Or will Word, Excel and friends simply be upgraded editions of the Office Web Apps the company already offers free of charge?

No one knows, analysts said, and that has them weighing words.

Silver for one, asked Microsoft straight out whether the Office apps represented a WOA Starter. "They kept saying it was a full version of Office, not a Starter edition," Silver said. But he also noted that even that denial gives Microsoft room to maneuver: They could simply label it something other than "Starter" but still use that as a model.

"What they wouldn't say is how they're going to monetize it," Silver added.

While experts like Hilwa and Silver inferred that the Office apps on WOA would be free, others came to a different conclusion.

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