New Microsoft Office ropes in Skype, Yammer, SkyDrive

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Updated: As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and company showed off the latest version of Office Monday, they hit all the right marks — a touch interface, cloud storage, VoIP integration and social networking tie-ins.

The new Office (now in customer preview) will be both “ink-”  and “touch-” enabled.  It will store user documents to Microsoft’s SkyDrive by default. (Microsoft already said it was tying SkyDrive cloud storage closely into its upcoming Windows 8 operating system.) And the new Office Home and Student 2013 RT versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote will ship with Microsoft’s promised ARM-based Windows 8 machines including Surface.

A lot of what was detailed was integration of  the new Office with existing (and some more recently acquired) Microsoft products, including Skype for VoIP communication and Yammer for social networking.

Much of the new functionality looks like catch-up — Microsoft knows it needs to respond to the iPad fever that’s overtaken the world, hence the Windows 8 tablets and touch enablement. (If Ballmer et al. mentioned new Office for iPad or Mac today, I missed it, although Microsoft Office is a popular Mac product.) Update: A Microsoft spokeswoman said Mac Office was not discussed today but that Office Mobile will work across Windows Phones, Android phones and iOSand that Microsoft will discuss those plans later. As for ink, Microsoft has been pushing pen computing for a decade with no discernible traction. It’ll be interesting to see if it takes this time around.

This effort is unbelievably important to Microsoft. Office, even more than Windows itself, is what keeps many people coming back to Microsoft — their documents are created in Word and their presentations authored in PowerPoint.  But many startups and web companies are taking a good look at free or less pricey Google Apps.  If nothing else, that price pressure and the demand for cloud-friendly applications have driven this Microsoft move.

The gamble here is that the drastically different more touch-oriented user interface, which many laud as an improvement over the old Office UI, may confuse or alienate long-time Office users.

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