Take That Google Apps: Free Microsoft Office Online

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And so the Google-Microsoft war continues. Let's review the latest battles:

In May, Microsoft struck at Google's search empire with Bing, a good-looking and smart-acting new search engine that the Times' David Pogue (and I) called better than Google, barely. Google struck back this week with Google Chrome, a planned operating system built for the growing netbook world of internet-based computing. And now Microsoft's counterstrike: the software giant will offer a free online version of its Office product (ie Word, Excel, PowerPoint) in 2010. Free Microsoft Office! And this guy said the Microsoft-Google wars were bad for customers...



Essentially Microsoft is hoping to launch a cheap, online version of its Office suite that doesn't include all the features of the paid-for version, to keep companies buying that product. But the company still claims that its software will provide "fuller service" than Google Apps, the free suite of online applications with about 15 million users. In short, Microsoft is trying to thread the needle here by creating a free online Office version with enough features to displace Google Docs, but not enough features to encourage companies to give up their lucrative Office purchases. That strikes me as a pretty significant challenge.

By moving into free online software, Microsoft is playing out this battle on Google's turf. Just days after Google announced plans to make an online-based operating system, Microsoft announces plans to unveil an online-based version of its widely popular Office software, which is purported used by more than 500 million PC-users.

My guess would be that when the Beta version rolls out in the first half of next year, the online Office products will have more than their fair share of bugs, but the important thing is that, contra Robert X. Cringely, this is evidence that the Microsoft-Google war (if it's permissible for me to color it a war) really can be good for computer users. No, Microsoft Office online won't change the modern work office, or topple Google -- but why do we have to demand that any of these tactical adjustments change the world, as Cringely would. Moving quality word processing and chart-making online will help us work faster, and cheaper. Isn't that enough?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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