Those wanting to get their hands on the Web-based versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will have to wait a little bit longer.
Business Division President Stephen Elop said in an October interview that a technology preview of the browser-based applications would come this year, followed by a beta in 2009. However, it turns out Microsoft is using a rather tortured interpretation of the term "technology preview."
It's currently being used by fewer than 1,000 Microsoft employees, as part of a test that started last month and is slated to go through February. Consumers won't be able to try a test version of the products until sometime next year. Microsoft isn't saying when, but I'd say you'll have plenty of time to try the Windows 7 beta before you have to worry about testing the Office Web apps.
Ultimately, Microsoft is planning the release of the Office Web Applications in conjunction with the next wave of Office product, code-named Office 14. Microsoft has not offered a release date for the desktop version of Office 14.
Microsoft is planning two ways of offering the browser-based Office programs--one for consumers and the other for businesses looking to offer Office Web apps to their workers. Consumers will be able to use them through Office Live. The company currently has a free product called Office Live Workspace that lets users view and share--but not edit--Office documents.
Meanwhile, rivals like Google and Zoho already offer editing abilities. Microsoft is staking its claim on being able to offer better compatibility and document fidelity with its products. The company has recently had some big customers consider abandoning Office and move to Google Apps, but has wooed some of them back by sharing their plan for the Office Web apps.
Procter & Gamble, for example, took a long look at moving to Google Apps, but decided to stick with Microsoft after some high-powered lobbying from Redmond. Elop said that Microsoft's pitch included details on its plans for the Web-based versions of the Office programs.
"This was part of the conversation, absolutely," Elop said. "We have been sharing with customers under varying circumstances to a greater or lesser extent."
Microsoft has not definitively said how it will price the products, but it has noted that Office Live has both subscription and free products, suggesting it may have both free and paid versions of the Web apps.
For businesses, the Office Web Applications will be offered as part of Microsoft's SharePoint server. In either case, the Office Web Apps will only work when a computer is connected to the Internet.
Energizer CIO Randy Benz told me last month that he expects the Office Web Applications to open doors for him. Benz said that a lower-cost Web-only option probably won't lower the overall cost of Office for his company, but it should mean that a new class of workers gets access to Office.
"Every PC has the full (Office) suite," Benz said. "But we limit the number of PCs."
Microsoft Vice President Chris Capossela said he sees things similarly. Right now there about 500 million users of Office, he said, but a lot of those copies haven't been paid for.
"We see a tremendous opportunity to sell more," he said.