Microsoft touts two next-gen Office editions for Windows

Will preview long-awaited touch version next month

Microsoft this week set a loose release date for its next iteration of Office on the desktop and announced that the long-awaited touch-enabled Windows apps will launch around the same time.

The touch-enabled apps will go out as a preview in February when Microsoft debuts Windows 10 for smartphones.

Office 2016, the moniker chosen for the next edition of the classic desktop suite, will launch in "the second half of 2015," said Julie White, who heads Microsoft's Office product management, in a Thursday blog.

The name was in line with previous labels for the bundle, which was last upgraded to Office 2013 in January of that year.

White gave little information about Office 2016, which will be the choice for Windows users who work with keyboard and mouse, other than the wide release window. It's almost certain that Microsoft will offer a public preview of some kind, probably within the next few months, and start selling the suite at the same time it rolls out Windows 10.

Windows 10 has been tagged with various launch itineraries, including "early fall" by Microsoft's chief operations officer, and most recently, "later this year."

Nor did White discuss pricing or packaging, but Microsoft commonly defers those details until near the ship date. Microsoft has promised to continue to sell perpetually licensed copies of Office -- those customers pay once and can use the software as long as they want -- so the dual models of buy-once and Office 365's rent-not-own will continue.

Office 365 subscribers can upgrade to Office 2016 free of charge when it appears.

Last year, Microsoft also teased a new Office for the Mac, which has not been named -- and said then that it, too, would go on sale in the second half of 2015. Microsoft has already previewed Outlook, the email client for the new Office on OS X, to Office 365 subscribers, and updated it earlier this week.

It's probable that Microsoft will start selling both Office 2016 for Windows and the new, still-unnamed edition for the Mac at the same time, which would be a break with precedent. In the past, the Mac edition has followed the Windows version by several months at minimum.

But White used most of her post to trumpet "Office for Windows 10," a suite of touch-first apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook. The latter will sport both email and calendar functionality, as does the desktop version.

Office for Windows 10 will be pre-installed on new Windows 10-powered smartphones and tablets with screens smaller than 8-in. It will also be available for larger-screen devices -- tablets and touch-ready notebooks -- from the Windows Store.

Sticking to its practice of dribbling out information to keep customers interested -- and its wares in the news -- Microsoft did not spell out whether the apps would be free to customers who already have a smartphone or tablet and who upgrade their devices to Windows 10. The company also did not say how much the apps would cost to install on larger tablets or touch laptops.

Unless Microsoft turns its Office business model completely inside-out between now and the apps' release, it will give smartphone and smaller tablet owners Office for Windows 10 for free, perhaps limiting the apps' features in some ways for larger tablets and touch PCs, and tie full functionality on the latter pair to an Office 365 consumer or corporate subscription.

Users who want to use the apps for business purposes -- no matter the device -- will need an Office 365 small business or enterprise subscription.

Those are the licensing terms for Office on the iPhone and Android smartphones, and for the iPad and the impending version for Android-based tablets.

Touch-based Office apps for Windows have been on Microsoft's to-do list for years.

In September 2011, then-CEO Steve Ballmer hinted that the company was working on "Metro-izing" Office, telling Wall Street analysts, "You ought to expect that we are rethinking and working hard on what it would mean to do Office Metro style." Metro was the brand that Microsoft once used to describe the tile- and touch-based interface that debuted on Windows 8 in 2012.

More than a year ago, Ballmer -- by that time on his way out -- promised "what I would call not just a touch-enabled, but a touch-first user interface ... for Windows 8," and set the release order as Windows first, iPad second. Ballmer's replacement, Satya Nadella, flipped the order when he introduced Office for iPad in March. Since then, Windows users have been waiting for word on something similar for them.

Microsoft's White said that a sneak peek of Office for Windows 10 -- not Office 2016 -- would be partnered with a Windows 10 Technical Preview update "in the coming weeks," which fits with what operating system chief Terry Myerson said Wednesday was a February timetable for a first beta of Windows 10 for smartphones.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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