Why Office 365 is far more important than Windows 8

Office 365

Jon Honeyball says Microsoft's decision to switch to a cloud subscription model makes the new version of Office the most revolutionary yet

New versions of Office tend to leave me cold nowadays. But then, I’m old enough to remember the days before Office had been forged out of a rather unholy alliance between Excel, Word and PowerPoint.

For those with very long memories, discussions about whether applications should have buttons that were 14 x 14 or 16 x 16 pixels ought to bring back nightmares. Since those pioneering days, Office has become bigger, more bloated and arguably more difficult to use for power users.

In the biggest change in the history of Office – actually since the original programs came together to create Office – Microsoft is going to offer Office on a rental model

I’m sure that some of the simpler and mid-level features are easier to use for beginners and intermediate users, but in latter years the whole edifice has taken on the appearance of an ageing Hollywood starlet wearing an embarrassing quantity of make-up, especially with the arrival of the ribbon bar in Office 2007. I’m still not comfortable with it, nor with the improved version in Office 2010, even after years of trying to like it. I guess I’m just too wedded to the old Office 2003 ways of doing things. I’ll gloss over the mess that was Office 2008 for Mac and accept that Office 2011 does a pretty good job, despite not supporting the new features of OS X 10.7 (such as Auto Save), let alone the new 10.8 that’s now shipping.

So why am I actually quite interested in the new version of Office for Windows? Well, first because it will be available on Windows RT – the ARM version of Windows 8 for touch-based tablets. To take a suite of heavyweight applications such as Office and ensure the code is clean enough to port to a different processor is no mean feat, and something that Microsoft didn’t manage in the 1990s with previous versions of Office.

Remember that we never did see Alpha, MIPS or PowerPC versions of Office back then; it was strictly 32-bit Intel Windows only. The arrival of 64-bit Office a while ago showed that the team was prepared to do the work necessary to clean up the situation for a non-Intel and non-32-bit future, and with the forthcoming RT version, it will be delivering on that commitment.

However, that isn’t the big issue. No, the issue is how Office will be made available to many users, especially to those in the home environment. Finally, Microsoft has brought its application virtualisation technology to Office, and this is a really big deal, since it means that Office applications can be delivered to customers through streaming online.

App virtualisation isn’t new – Microsoft’s technology was brought in several years ago and then made part of the server family, but getting it to work really effectively requires considerable skill and understanding of just what these apps are doing when you install them on a machine.

It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, and there’s much necessary reading to be done – Microsoft's guide to application virtualisation is only the starting point (after that, I suggest you read the The Definitive Guide to Delivering Microsoft Office with App-V.

However, all this hassle will be unnecessary with the new version of Office, since Microsoft has done the work for you, and is now going to package it for the end user. In the biggest change in the history of Office – actually since the original programs came together to create Office – Microsoft is going to offer Office on a rental model.

This is revolutionary. This reduces Windows to merely providing the OS bootstrap and base hardware services, with Office, email and so forth all being pulled in from the web. However, they won’t arrive only as web applications (although you’ll receive those Office Web Apps too), but as real native applications that are streamed, updated and looked after from the cloud. All of them are coupled to proper email storage on Exchange Server, and shared document storage through SkyDrive.