Microsoft teases 'Office Lite' for Windows' touch UI

Pegs release for next year, but functionality, price and release schedule remain mysteries

Microsoft today briefly previewed an Office application designed for the Windows "Modern," née "Metro," user interface (UI), and said it would launch the touch-enabled suite next year.

"This is big," said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research.

The company later confirmed that the new Office apps will not appear until 2014, but declined to provide any additional information, whether a narrower release window or pricing clues.

The brief glimpse of PowerPoint, one of the core applications in Office 2013, was offered by Julie Larson-Green, the head of Windows development, during her time on stage today at BUILD, Microsoft's developers conference. She dubbed it "a preview of an alpha," hinting that its status was extremely preliminary.

The app will run on devices powered by either x86 or ARM processors -- in other words, on either Windows 8 or Windows RT -- and will be available from the Windows Store.

Currently, the only "Modern-ized" -- or for those who can't let go of the original name of the tile-style UI -- "Metro-ized" Office apps are the four now bundled with Windows RT, and the Lync, OneNote, SharePoint and Yammer apps already in the Windows Store.

But even those are first-generation apps that have, at best, a light layer of touch, said Gillett. "The [Modern] Office apps are a completely different animal than those now on Windows RT," he said, pointing to the bundle of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word included with the limited-feature spin-off of Windows 8. "Those are not touch-first, they're retrofitted with touch."

As Microsoft intimated, however, the new Office apps will be designed from the ground up for Modern and touch.

Beyond that, however, little was certain. Larson-Green said virtually nothing about the apps' features or editing prowess, limiting her demo to a few moments of PowerPoint slide transitions. "There's no indication of what these will look like or how they will work," said Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

More important than the particulars of the apps' functionality, said the experts, was the signal Microsoft gave by simply mentioning them.

"This shows that Microsoft is fully committed to the Modern interface," said Gillett. "They're taking their most powerful and far-reaching application -- Office -- and making it Modern. There were always question marks about their commitment [to Modern] because people could say, 'If you're so serious about it, why haven't you moved Office to it?'"

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, completely agreed.

"This was a definite signal that Metro is the future development environment for Windows," said Moorhead. "Microsoft's most profitable and highest-revenue application is going Metro.... That says it all. If there was any doubt in anyone's mind that Metro is the future, there should be no miscommunication now."

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