April 18, 2013


Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium. Windows 7 or 8 or Mac OS 10.6 or later. Microsoft. $100/yr.

     The advent of Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Office 2013 means that we have arrived at yet another of those crossroads that most home and small-business computer users would just as soon avoid – but that are an inevitable effect of progress in the world of computer software. Some might prefer the neutral word “development” to “progress,” arguing that what is newer is not necessarily better; and that is a worthwhile philosophical point – but it does not apply to Microsoft's new Office products, because what is new in them is better in many, many ways. There are, however, frustrating decision-making necessities before you can get to all the good new elements.

     Microsoft is now migrating its venerable Office suite to a subscription model rather than the now-old-fashioned physical-product model, at least in the developed world. The subscription model has its own perfectly satisfactory history, having been used successfully for many years by, for example, computer-security companies: any individual or business using Symantec’s Norton Internet Security or Norton 360, for instance, understands the arrangement perfectly well and will have no problem with it. It simply means that instead of installing software from a physical medium, you download it and have it set up from “the cloud” (that rather silly but now-ubiquitous way of referring to Internet-based storage and operations). Your usage of the software is tracked online, you get notice when your subscription is about to expire, and you sign up for another year of usage to guarantee seamless continuing operations at your location.

     As Microsoft handles this subscription system, there is a lot more to it. Microsoft provides the full Office experience – every single component of the suite – to PC-using subscribers; promises to provide ongoing free upgrades to Office during the subscription term; includes 27 gigabytes of cloud storage through its SkyDrive system (the seven gigs that anyone can have for free, plus an additional 20); provides 60 minutes per month of free international Skype calls to landlines in most countries, and to mobile phones in seven places (Canada, China, Guam, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Singapore and Thailand); and lets you install Microsoft Office 365 on up to five computers – a cost per computer of just $20 a year if you use all five installations.

     Microsoft Office 365 installs easily, runs quickly, includes all functionality from the previous iteration of the suite (Microsoft Office 2010), and is specifically designed to integrate with Windows 8, whose overall look and color scheme it shares. The new suite works on touch-screen devices, such as tablets and laptops running Windows 8 (another part of the integration of Office with Microsoft’s latest operating system). And it springs from an underlying assumption that the future of productivity lies in multiple places rather than a fixed office: users get to stream a full-featured version of Microsoft Office 365 to any Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC that does not have the suite installed if they want to work at remote locations or on unfamiliar computers. This is the first Office that goes everywhere, anytime.

     But. Ah yes, the notorious “but” that makes decision-making on new software products so frustrating. How much creative developmental work do you actually do in multiple locations? If the answer is “a lot,” Microsoft Office 365 makes a lot of sense; if the answer is “none” or “not much,” the picture changes. How many computers do you need to have running Office all the time? If the answer is four or five, Microsoft Office 365 is a great choice; if the answer is one, maybe not. How comfortable are you with long-term commitment to Microsoft’s suite? If you have already used it for years and have upgraded whenever a new version has come out, Microsoft Office 365 may be ideal; if not – or if you are considering alternatives to Microsoft’s products, such as Google Docs – you may not want to lock yourself into the subscription model, which exists from a business standpoint largely so people will lock themselves into it long-term. How many components of Microsoft Office 365 do you already use regularly or have definite plans to use in the future? If you use essentially the whole suite – which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access – then Microsoft Office 365 may be just what you need. If not – well, you cannot customize the installation of this version of Office, and you will pay for and get everything in it if you are using PCs. And what if you do not use PCs? Well then, are you committed to Office for Mac? How committed? Microsoft Office 365 is not quite the same for Macs as for PCs: it omits OneNote, Publisher and Access and does not offer the streaming feature (although there are workarounds for it). Is that all right with you?

     A more-general question is this: do you actually create, or intend to create, significant content on tablets and other portable and/or touch-screen devices? If so, Microsoft Office 365 can be a great productivity booster; if not, it may well be more than you need – or simply not the right software at all. Let’s be realistic about this. The vast majority of users of mobile devices – smartphones, tablets and all the rest – want to consume information, not create it. Small-screen, highly portable devices are ideal for observing things, looking at things, checking in with people, staying connected while on the road, and so forth. Indeed, Great Britain’s Institution of Engineering and Technology has encapsulated the appeal of mobile devices in general by saying that the billion-dollar-a-year telecommunications industry is driven by “an array of technologies, resulting in the average mobile being used to take photos, play music and games, send emails, download maps, watch video clips, all as well as talking and texting.” There is nothing in that evaluation about any significant sort of creativity or business applicability.

     The fact is that current and planned mobile devices are far from ideal for producing reports, brochures, spreadsheets, newsletters and anything else that may be important for your business or family. For the vast majority of genuine productivity, a full-featured computer (desktop or laptop) remains a far better choice than the latest portable gadget, and is likely to retain its primacy for some time to come.

     Microsoft is playing it smart with Microsoft Office 365 by making it compatible across multiple platforms and focusing on several next-generation elements of connectivity, such as touch screens. Microsoft is also being cagey about this, boosting its corporate image as well as its positioning in the increasingly mobile world of developed countries by taking one of its two primary moneymakers (operating systems being the other) and adapting it for all sorts of mobile applications. But from the point of view of many individuals and families, and emphatically from the point of view of many businesses, Microsoft is getting ahead of things here – not ahead of itself, but ahead of many of its loyal customers. Microsoft Office 365 can do lots of things extremely well – and look good doing them, by the way – but it is ahead of its time in terms of how people create things, although not in terms of how they consume them.

     This is nowhere clearer than in the method by which Microsoft Office 365 saves whatever you make with it. The default “save” option is to the cloud, to SkyDrive; hence that 27-gig total of storage space (and you can buy more, of course). You can save what you create on a local computer, but the whole point of the mobility emphasis of Microsoft Office 365 is that your documents, brochures, spreadsheets and all the rest will be stored online and accessible on any device, anywhere, anytime, by anyone authorized to gain access through your account. How comfortable are you with that? This is a serious question for many individuals and families as well as for virtually all businesses. By now, it has become commonplace to store backups online, and there is clearly a rising comfort level about that level of dependence on “cloud computing.” But how comfortable are you putting, say, all your company’s strategic plans and projected financial data on SkyDrive? With the ever-increasing sophistication of hackers, individually and in groups; with DDoS attacks proliferating; with supposedly secure sites of all kinds turning out to have backdoor vulnerabilities; with ubiquitous elements of Internet communication, such as Java, being found to have enormous security holes; with all this and more, just how dependent on Internet storage and retrieval are you comfortable being? Of course, you can opt for local storage of whatever you create with Microsoft Office 365, but that defeats a major purpose of this redesigned software suite: collaborative tools that simplify multi-location work both by people who travel from place to place and by multiple individuals in different locations.
     Microsoft clearly sees a subscription model for a full-featured Office suite, with multi-device compatibility and cloud storage, as the future; and it is probably right about all that, even though such a future is not here quite yet. In fact, Microsoft has not stopped selling packaged versions of Office altogether; yes, there is a Microsoft Office 2013. You can buy, for example, Office Home & Student 2013 for $140 and install it on a single local computer. This is down from the three installations permitted with Office 2010, but at least Microsoft has abandoned its original, much-discussed and understandably much-maligned consumer-unfriendly position that a single installation would be the only one allowed, even if you switched computers or your hard drive crashed. The packaged versions of the software, though – which also include Office Home and Business 2013 for $220 and Office Professional 2013 for $400 – are clearly heading toward becoming legacy products, and are really not good buys unless you have very specifically limited, single-computer needs for Office. Furthermore, the packaged versions will not get the promised automatic updates that are potentially a very valuable feature of Microsoft Office 365; and the only packaged version that includes all the programs that come with Microsoft Office 365 is the overpriced Professional product.
     Well, what if you opt for Microsoft Office 365 and discover, as your year’s subscription nears its end, that you have not used a lot of its features and are no longer enamored of the suite? What happens to all your work? That is a concern that sounds like a bigger deal than it is: if you let your subscription lapse, you lose access to the components of Microsoft Office 365 but not to whatever you have created with it – you will still be able to get to and open your documents with a boxed version of Office, through Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, or even through a competitor such as Google Docs. Still, if this happens, it will likely be a significant inconvenience, especially if you have used the default storage setting and kept your creations online.
     Therefore – and here we are at the crossroads – you really do need to try to project your likely use of the components of Microsoft Office 365 into the future; the extent to which you are comfortable with cloud storage and multi-location creative work; the chances that you will do creative things on a wide variety of devices now or in the near future; and the depth of your commitment to the entire Office experience. Until you do that analysis for yourself, your family or your business, you will not have a good handle on how useful Microsoft Office 365 will be in your everyday life now and, presumably, when you re-subscribe to it in years to come. The bottom line is that Office remains the best, most full-featured productivity suite anywhere, and its newest iteration really is its best yet, with wonderfully seamless functionality, an attractively coordinated appearance, tremendous capabilities within every single component, and collaborative elements that significantly exceed anything Microsoft has offered before. Microsoft has a clear road map of the future of Office, and Microsoft Office 365 shows the way admirably. However, the future toward which Microsoft Office 365 points – one in which mobile devices are founts of creativity and cloud storage is simple, safe and tremendously secure – is not here yet, and it is by no means certain that that particular future will be the one that emerges in the next few years. If you agree with Microsoft’s vision of where office and personal productivity is heading, then you absolutely will not go wrong with Microsoft Office 365. Just be sure that you do agree that this approach is the future for you, your family or your business before you make the commitment to begin annual subscriptions to a product that intends to be the foundation of pretty much everything you create for a very long time to come.

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