On Wednesday, Microsoft will release a free, Web-based edition of its Office software. Back in November, Farhad Manjoo tried out a preview of the productivity suite and came away impressed. Manjoo wondered, though, whether Microsoft could survive if it started giving away its cash cow for free. The original piece is reprinted below.
It's difficult to overstate the success of Microsoft Office. Calling it one of the best-selling tech products of all time is a bit like calling Michael Jackson a very popular musician—it's certainly accurate, but it woefully misses the mark. According to Microsoft, more than 500 million people around the world use the Fantastic Four of productivity apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Yet no one simply uses Office; for many, these programs are an essential daily tool kit, the ever-present background hum of the white-collar grind.
There is no mystery to Office's success. Sure, Microsoft may have strong-armed its productivity suite to ubiquity, but unlike Windows, Office has long been unquestionably the best program in its class. Every Office app satisfies two important demands for Microsoft's large and diverse customer base: It's simple for novices to grasp but offers enough deep features for people to develop undying bonds of affection and expertise. The more you use Office, the better you get at it—and the less likely you are to use anything else.
Sometime next year, Microsoft will put out Office 2010. The suite has been available as an invite-only preview for several months, and this week the company launched it as a public beta—you can download the entire program for free here. A Microsoft rep recently gave me a walkthrough of the new version, and I was impressed.
Office 2010 offers lots of new features and several user-interface improvements over previous versions. One nice addition allows you to preview how text or images you're copying will look before you paste them. (Watch this video for a better idea of how this works.) Microsoft has also expanded the "ribbon" interface first seen in Office 2007—the tab bar across the top of the screen that replaces the cumbersome drop-down menu commands found in old versions of Office. The ribbon takes a bit of time to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it speeds up a lot of what you do in Office. Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft has built several collaborative features into the new Office. Co-workers can now simultaneously edit Word and Excel documents—something that many people now turn to Google Docs to do.