Microsoft Office Announcement Leaves ARM Community Wondering What's Going On

Last week, Windows 8's head developer, Steven Sinofsky, published an 8,600-word blog post describing virtually every facet of Windows 8's development, including the hardware Microsoft has used for system testing and simulation. One of the major bullet points of the announcement was the following: WOA includes desktop versions of the new Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. These new Office applications, codenamed “Office 15”, have been significantly architected for both touch and minimized power/resource consumption, while also being fully-featured for consumers and providing complete document compatibility. (Emphasis original).

It was always a given that Microsoft Office would ship in an ARM-compatible flavor, but Sinofsky's statement implies that the company may ship Windows on ARM (WOA) with Office preinstalled. That would be a major shift in policy for a company that relies on Office sales for a third of its total income, and its sent analysts scurrying to ask MS to clarify the situation. So far, Remond isn't saying much. The company claims that the version of Office it'll ship with WOA won't be a "Starter Edition," but as some have noted, it could avoid that loophole by calling the same features by a different title.

The Perils Of Giving Office Away For Free

As things are currently, Microsoft offers two options for "free" Office software. OEMs and system builders have access to the Office 2010 Starter Edition; a minimalist version of Word and Excel that's ad-supported and lacks support for a number of advanced features. The Starter Edition is distributed with a PowerPoint viewer, but no editing tools.

Alternately, users have the option to use Office Web Apps (accessible via services like Hotmail, Facebook Messages, and SkyDrive). Again, however, these are very limited versions of the desktop flavors of the program, though OneNote and PowerPoint are both available.

Neither of these options approaches full Office functionality, and neither is meant to. If Microsoft puts Office WOA systems by default, it's a calculated upsale technique designed to fight the attractiveness of Apple and Android competitors that hit the market first. Office is Microsoft's ace card -- as someone who has made it a point to regularly test free alternatives like OpenOffice and Libre Office, there's no alternative to Microsoft in this space that isn't second-rate. It's likely that MS would incorporate the value-added benefit of Office into what it charges for a WOA license, thereby limiting the amount of revenue cannibalization, while trumpeting this as a win-win for itself and consumers. Any business looking to acquire tablets / PCs for work purposes, meanwhile, will factor the cost of Office licenses against the proposed cost of the hardware.

"They're between a rock and a hard place," analyst Paul DeGroot told Computerworld. "This is another effort by Microsoft trying to find a compromise that will let them grow the installed base by having a successful product on ARM, and still maintain their revenue. Eventually, all monopolies come to an end. Microsoft is being challenged by a new technology and form factor that they haven't had an answer for."

This sort of move would never have passed muster in the x86 world, where Microsoft's monopoly conviction from 10 years ago would bring Assistant Attorney Generals swarming like fat kids on cake. In ARM, where Microsoft's market share is minimal, the company clearly believes its in the clear. We don't expect clarification anytime soon -- Microsoft probably won't unveil the exact program details until Windows 8 is locked and loaded.