Microsoft will upgrade on Wednesday its existing Office 365 cloud email and collaboration suites for businesses, as well as introduce new bundles, growing even more the list of Office 365 editions, which some analysts and users had already termed somewhat confusing.
The components of the Office 365 suites for businesses, like the Web-hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync, are getting upgraded to the latest 2013 code base of the products.
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In addition, Microsoft is introducing three new configurations of the suite. Office 365 ProPlus, which had been previously announced, includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, InfoPath, Access and Lync. Customers can download it from Microsoft data centers and install it on up to 5 Windows PCs or Macs. It costs $144 per user, per year if bought as a standalone suite.
Meanwhile, Office 365 Small Business Premium, aimed at organizations with 1 to 10 employees, includes Office ProPlus, along with Exchange Online, Lync Online and SharePoint Online. It costs $150 per user, per year.
Finally, Office 365 Midsize Business, designed for organizations with 10 to 250 employees, adds a basic set of IT administration controls, such as Active Directory integration, as well as phone support during business hours. It costs $180 per user, per year.
Kirk Gregersen, general manager in the Office Division, said Microsoft wants to give customers flexibility and a variety of options when deploying Office 365, including the ability to mix and match different editions to cater to different users.
However, other competitors have taken a different tack, including Google, which offers just a few variations of its Apps cloud email and collaboration suite, a strategy that sacrifices variety in favor of simplicity.
During a webcast launch event on Wednesday, Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft's Office Division, said that "with this announcement weve delivered the most ambitious release of Office ever."
He highlighted the prominent role of SkyDrive, providing centralized cloud storage for files across the Office stack so that users can access them from multiple devices and easily share them with colleagues.
The cloud model also allows Microsoft to shift into a mode of rolling upgrades, delivering enhancements more frequently to the applications than with the traditional, longer release cycles for on-premise software, he said.
DelBene also touted the reduction in hardware and maintenance costs for customers, and the increased freedom for IT departments to focus on more strategic, innovative work.
However, he also acknowledged that the move to cloud-based software is a journey for many customers, so Microsoft will continue providing and maintaining the on-premise versions of the Office desktop and server applications.
The executive also pointed out that the 2013 versions of the Office applications have had their user interfaces revamped to work best with the Windows 8 OS and its "live" tile icons optimized for touch screen devices like tablets, where Microsoft lags behind Apple and Android device makers. In addition to the Windows 8 UI, Microsoft is trying to catch up in this market with its own Surface tablet devices.
DelBene also propped up Yammer, the ESN (enterprise social networking) software Microsoft acquired in mid-2012 to boost the collaboration capabilities of SharePoint, Office, Dynamics and other products. Yammer is now included with some Office 365 editions.
Neither DelBene nor any other presenters said anything about the possible development of an iOS version of Office, for which many believe there is substantial demand among iPad and iPhone owners.
Earlier this week, he was asked about this at a technology conference and he noted that Microsoft already offers iOS versions of some applications like OneNote. He also said that iPad users can access via their browsers the Web-based version of the suite, Office Web Apps. Although it offers a subset of main product's functionality, Office Web Apps was upgraded in October to work better on touch-based devices like iPads.
Of course, the Surface and other Windows 8 tablets run full-featured, native versions of Office, which gives those devices an advantage over iPad and Android tablets.
Brett Goldstein, CIO of the city of Chicago, participated in the webcast and said Office 365 has been rolled out to about 30,000 city employees. He expects this initiative will free up the IT staff to do more innovative work, and said he's confident that the IT department isn't compromising on security and compliance by using cloud software.
Goldstein said Office 365 was brought in also to improve communication and collaboration among employees, following a mandate by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for departments to break out of their silos and work in more interdisciplinary ways.
Office 365 for business was launched in mid-2011, amidst criticism that Microsoft had taken too long to release a viable competitor for Google Apps, which has been available since 2006.
That first wave of Office 365 suites was based on the 2010 editions of SharePoint, Lync and Exchange. It included Office Web Apps, a browser-based version of Office 2010, and also offered customers the option of adding the full Office 2010 Professional Plus productivity application suite via a subscription model.
Now, Office 365 has been adopted by one in five of Microsoft's enterprise customers, and small and medium business customers have grown 150 percent in the past year, according to the company. On Wednesday, Microsoft announced three new customers: Hamburg Port Authority, Midroc Europe and Sephora USA.
The new and upgraded Office 365 bundles are available today in 69 markets and 17 languages, and will be available in the second quarter in 20 more markets and 16 more languages.
Microsoft last year decided to also brand as Office 365 the new subscription-based version of the Office suite for consumers, calling it Office 365 Home Premium. A version available via the traditional perpetual-license model is also available under the name Office 2013. These consumer versions of the Office suite became available last month.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.