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Microsoft teases touch-first Office for Windows

Gregg Keizer | April 4, 2014
But declines to talk about a release timetable.

Microsoft on Wednesday teased a touch-first Office for Windows 8.1, but contrary to many experts' expectations, previewed only one app and declined to define a release window.

During the three-hour keynote address that opened Microsoft's Build developers conference, Kirk Koenigsbauer, the executive who leads the company's Office product group, spent a few minutes demonstrating a touch-based PowerPoint.

Koenigsbauer called what he showed a "preview of our work in progress" that illustrated the "direction we're taking" with the suite's three apps — Word, Excel and PowerPoint — implying that they could change dramatically between now and their release.

He did not show either Word or Excel, but did mention the ribbon, the user interface (UI) element that debuted in Office 2007 for Windows and has been a hallmark of the Office applications since, including those that launched last week for Apple's iPad.

"As we built these new apps, as customers moved from Win32 to the Modern [UI], the key is the iconic ribbon," Koenigsbauer said.

He did not hint at a possible release date, not even something general, like "this fall" or "later this year," as Microsoft sometimes does.

That was not what most analysts had expected.

They based their beliefs on comments made by CEO Satya Nadella after the cameras went dark last week at a press event where Microsoft unveiled Office for iPad, an all-touch trio of apps — again, Word, Excel and PowerPoint — written specifically for Apple's tablet.

"You'll see us talk even more about [a touch-first Office for Windows] next week, in terms of what innovation we are doing on that platform," Nadella told reporters last week, as reported by Geekwire.

Analysts interpreted Nadella's comments to mean that Microsoft would describe an all-touch Office for Windows 8.1 in significant detail, certainly in more detail than the few minutes that Koenigsbauer spent at Build.

Microsoft may simply be playing its cards close, but the short demonstration, and then only of PowerPoint, and Koenigsbauer's reference to "our work in progress" hinted at a longer timespan before Microsoft ships the "Modern," formerly known as "Metro," apps for Windows 8.1 and presumably also Windows RT, the tablet-specific OS that powers only the Surface 2 and Nokia's Lumia 2520.

The unveiling order of a touch-enabled Office — first for iPad, Microsoft's tablet rival — was a major departure from previous company strategy, which has almost universally been "Windows-first" for the company's software. The implied lag between the two makes Microsoft's move of last week to ship Office on the iPad first even more radical.

Whenever a touch-first Office for Windows does ship, it will likely use the same business model as does Office for iPad: reduced functionality — viewing documents only — for free, with full functionality available only to customers who subscribe to Office 365.


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