There are lots of changes coming from Microsoft. In addition to launching its new Windows 8 operating system and a pair of Windows 8 Surface tablet PCs, the company just released the consumer versions of Office 2013 and Office 365. The names are confusing because imply there are two different products. But it's actually the same basic product with different pricing models -- like a car company offering the same car for sale or lease.
You can purchase a copy of the new version of Microsoft Office for Windows but Microsoft would prefer that you rent it instead. The company is trying to reposition itself from one that sells software to a services company by getting people to pay by the year or the month for access to its software rather than purchase it outright.
Microsoft is encouraging home users to pay $99.99 a year (or $9.99 a month) to access the Office 365 suite of applications on up to five PCs. This option gives you access to the full range of programs: Microsoft Word, the Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, OneNote and Access (for managing databases). Microsoft also throws in an extra 20 gigabytes of its SkyDrive cloud-based storage service and 60 global minutes of calling via Skype. The deal also includes any upgrades issued during the life of your service agreement.
Although Microsoft didn't release a new version of Macintosh Office, Mac users or families with both PCs and Macs can take advantage of the same offer. That means a $100 subscription would cover, for example, a family with three PCs and two Macs. College and university staff and students can get the same package for $79.99 for four years. I wish college tuition were this affordable.
Another option is to purchase Office 2013 the old fashioned way. The least expensive version, Office Home and Student, costs $139.99 and comes only with Word, Excel PowerPoint and OneNote and is licensed for only one PC. There is also an Office Home & Business version for $219.99 that includes Outlook. Or, for $399.99 you can buy Office Professional and also get Access and Publisher. It would be nice if they threw Publisher into the less expensive packages because it's a handy program for consumers who want to create greeting cards, certificates, fliers, photo albums and fancy documents.
Regardless of which version you use, you can now store your Office documents on Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage system, which gives you access to them from anywhere, including on mobile devices. People who buy rather than subscribe don't get the extra free 20 gigabytes of storage. But anyone can get 7 gigabytes for free, and you can purchase an extra 20 GB for $10 a year, and extra 50 GB for $25, or an extra 100 GB for $100.
You can also store Office (or any other) documents on other cloud storage services including Dropbox, SugarSync and Google (GOOG) Drive. For example, I wrote the bulk of this column on my Windows PC but finished it on my Mac by accessing the file via cloud storage.
If you plan to use Office on multiple machines, the $100 a year program probably makes the most sense, and there is something to be said for subscribing to software that's always up-to-date. I like the idea of knowing that once I purchase software I can use it "forever," but "forever" in the world of technology isn't necessarily all that long.
Still, when it comes to the basic features -- like writing documents, creating spreadsheet and developing presentations -- brand new software isn't necessarily more useful than older programs.
Microsoft has been making these programs for decades. The first version of Word came out in 1983, and Excel was first published for Mac in 1985. While Microsoft keeps tweaking these programs, even versions that are several years old provide the basic features most people use. True, I'm writing this column using Word 2013, but so far I haven't noticed any features that make it incredibly better than Word 2010 or even Word 2007.
It's also important to note that there are other options. Microsoft itself offers free access to online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and Google offers its own free programs for online use that offer similar features. The downside of these online versions is that you have to have an Internet connection to use them. Another option is the free and open source Apache OpenOffice.org that is compatible with most Microsoft Office documents. Mac and iPad users have the option of using Apple's (AAPL) iWorks that includes its Pages word processing program, Numbers spreadsheet program and Keynote presentation software. Unlike Microsoft's Office bundle, they're priced a la carte at $19.99 per module.
The new Office works with Windows 7 as well as the new Windows 8, and works well on both standard PCs and laptops and tablets with touch screens. The new Microsoft Word has a reading mode optimized for reviewing documents on tablet PCs.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.