Aiming to turn more new PC buyers into Office users, Microsoft has announced plans for several new ways to obtain the software, including an ad-supported "Starter" edition that can come loaded on new PCs.
In a blog posting Thursday, Microsoft said the starter version of Office will have limited features and include only Excel and Word. The starter version will be part of the Office 2010 family, due out next year, and will only be available on new PCs.
"Office Starter 2010 will provide new PC owners with immediate exposure to the Office 2010 experience on new PCs right out of the box," Microsoft said, adding that it can be upgraded to one of several full versions of Office with a new upgrade card to be sold at retail stores.
The product is a replacement for Microsoft Works, which was Microsoft's low-cost option for PC makers that wanted to include basic productivity software. Microsoft had also quietly tinkered with a free, ad-supported version of Works in recent years.
Office Starter, as opposed to Works, will have full file compatibility with Office as well as features like the 'Ribbon' user interface.
"It really is a replacement for Works," Microsoft corporate vice president Takeshi Numoto said in an interview on Thursday. "It is not a mere renaming of Works. It is an Office product."
Microsoft is trying several ideas to better compete with free rivals such as Google Docs. With Office 2010, Microsoft will also offer a free, ad-supported version of Office that runs in a Web browser. That product, which went into a technology preview last month, requires connection to the Internet at all times.
"It's a way for us to reach customers who may have not experienced Office before, (for them) to get a taste of it," Numoto said.
For years now, Microsoft has grappled with new ways of selling Office, which, along with Windows, is one of the company's two main profit engines. Although Office boasts half a billion users, there are lots of folks that use pirated copies of the software or don't have Office at all.
Several years back, as part of a ThinkWeek paper seen by CNET News, Microsoft workers recommend that the company scrap Works in favor of an ad-supported product, saying Microsoft only got a couple dollars of revenue per PC when Works was included.
Numoto would not go into financial details for Office Starter, but did say that it is a "royalty-bearing" product for Microsoft, as Works was. In the past, though, PC makers have had an opportunity to earn back money if customers upgrade from a trial version of Office to the full version. Numoto wouldn't detail how that might work with Office Starter.
Microsoft is also trying out a new method for those that already have a PC to try out Office 2010, once it is available. Called "Click to Run," it brings the notion of streaming to software. Instead of waiting for the whole product to download, users can click a button and start using the software as soon as some of the basics are downloaded. The rest of the product then gets downloaded over time.
Microsoft has already seen the Web increase as a means for getting its software. Numoto said that in the last fiscal year some 23 million downloads of the Office trial, nearly double the number from a year earlier.
Still, he said, downloading a big file means a long wait. "We know we could do a lot better to streamline that experience," he said.
An additional benefit of the Click to Run installation is that it is done through application virtualization. That allows the code, even though it is still being run locally, to run side-by-side with an existing version of Office. That would allow, for example, a user to run a trial version of Office 2010, without getting rid of their existing Office installation.