Microsoft to bring free Office to smartphones

by Caroline Gabriel, ReThink Wireless

The intensifying Google-Microsoft stand off is not all about mobiles, but increasingly users will be carrying out the bulk of their web and office work on the move, from netbooks or smartphones. So it is hardly surprising that there is a mobile slant to Microsoft’s latest riposte to Google’s aggressive attacks on its model, with Chrome OS and cloud-based applications. The Redmond giant is to launch a free, web-based version of its Office suite, with a smartphone implementation from day one.

Office Web Applications will contain slightly stripped down browser-based versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote, going head on with apps like Google Docs, which are hosted on remote servers and accessed online. However, the mobile experience will be delivered via a standard browser interface, a version optimised for small screens and mobile UIs will follow, under the name Office Mobile, but not until 2010. Both will be ad-supported.

The browser version will be made available through Windows Live, or via software licenses as part of a hosted offering from Microsoft Online Services. “Office 2010 was designed to deliver the best productivity experience across the PC, mobile phone, and browser,” said Stephen Elop, business division president. “Documents will look the same all the way down to the formatting as you move across devices.”

Microsoft is clearly wary of an increase in the impact of free, online apps, which could be accelerated by the shift to mobile devices and new user interfaces. So far, Office has held its own – OpenOffice has 5% of the US market, and Google Docs 1%, says ClickStream – but could be disadvantaged by the move to cloud computing.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates told CNET News that Chrome OS is just another Linux: “There are many, many forms of Linux operating systems out there and packaged in different ways and booted in different ways,” he said in the interview. “In some ways I am surprised people are acting like there’s something new. I mean, you’ve got Android running on netbooks. It’s got a browser in it.”

While Gates was considering the shift to browser-based usage – “what’s a browser, what’s not a browser?” he asked philosophically – Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was, predictably, more hidebound in clinging to the traditional Windows model. “We don’t need a new operating system,” he said in his keynote at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans. “What we do need to do is to continue to evolve Windows, Windows Applications, IE, the way IE works in totality with Windows and how we build applications like Office.” He pointed out that half of software activity still takes place outside the browser.

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