Microsoft Azure Cloud lets in Office and SharePoint 2010

Microsoft Business Division president Stephen Elop spoke before a packed studio at the famed NBC Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. “It is a moment of fundamental change and there are a lot of reasons for this,” Elop said, noting that organizations have tighter budgets and a more mobile workforce. Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 have been designed to meet these challenges, he said. “The 2010 products represent an epic release for Microsoft.”

Microsoft itself plans to offer hosted online versions of Office 2010, called Office Web Apps, through Microsoft Azure Cloud capabilities, later on this summer. The stand-alone software versions are available to businesses today. Elop noted that the software can be run either in-house or from the cloud and mobile versions for the Windows 6.5 and Windows 7 platforms will be available as well. In an interview following the launch, Kurt DelBene, senior vice president of the office business productivity group of the Microsoft Business Division, further clarified Microsoft’s approach to bringing Office 2010 to the cloud. The new version of SharePoint features the Web versions of the Office suite. When Office 2010 is released to consumers next month, Windows Live will run Web-based versions of the office software, as part of the company’s SkyDive service.

But Microsoft does not see these cloud offerings as a replacement for the PC software. “We anticipate people will use a combination of the rich clients and the Web clients,” DelBene said. The online versions will be geared toward tasks best done online, such as collaborative editing, but the PC software will be where people will continue to go to create documents, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint decks, he said.

Microsoft 2010 certainly has a bevy of new features, all aimed at greater efficiency and productivity. Perhaps most notably, the Outlook e-mail client has been revamped with more powerful management capabilities, such as the ability to handle threaded conversations. It also has what is called a Social Connector, or the ability to fuse social data from LinkedIn and Facebook. PowerPoint can now be used to make presentations viewable on the Internet. The ribbon interface has been streamlined and has been applied to all applications. The suite also includes, for the first time, Microsoft’s note-taking program, OneNote. With this package, Microsoft has clearly taken a strong look at usability. Office now has something called “Paste Preview” which, as the name states, shows the user what the document would look like with the newly pasted item. It came about because Microsoft noticed that the feature most used after paste is undo.

One aspect in the presentation that wasn’t discussed in detail, however, was discussion of putting Office online, as a hosted service. That will happen later this year. The company plans to offer virtually all the features of the products as a cloud offering. At least one company, namely Google, has been making the most with Microsoft’s seeming tardiness in providing Microsoft Office applications as a cloud offering. In the days leading up to Wednesday’s launch, Google executives have been talking extensively with the press about its online office offering, Google Docs, as well as how Microsoft is behind Google in terms of offering office productivity functionality in the cloud.

Microsoft Office still holds the lion’s share of the market for office productivity suites. A July 2009 survey from IT research firm IDC found that approximately 97% of the respondents said that at least one version of Microsoft Office is used in their organizations. But Google is gaining ground, the same survey found that 19.5% of respondents were in organizations that used Google Docs in some form, up from 5.8% a year prior.

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