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6/5/2013
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Microsoft To Bundle Office In Windows 8.1 Tablets

Playing one of its biggest trump cards, Microsoft says Win8.1 tablets will include Office, and Windows RT will get Outlook. Will these changes bolster Win8's BYOD progress?

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Microsoft announced Wednesday that Windows RT tablets will soon include a version of Outlook, and that many tablets that run the full OS will come bundled with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Windows CFO/CMO Tami Reller delivered the news during a keynote at this week's Computex computer show in Taipei, Taiwan, stating that the pre-installed Office software will arrive later this year with Windows 8.1. The keynote also included the first public demonstration of Microsoft's forthcoming Win8 update (formerly code-named Windows Blue), which will be released later this month as a public preview.

The move, which had been rumored throughout the spring, affirms Office as one of Win8's primary appeals over iPads and Android-based tablets. Redmond officials touted the enterprise value of Windows 8.1's tweaked UI and security enhancements at both Computex and TechEd, a Microsoft conference running this week in New Orleans, but commentators have so far been divided on the update. Some have praised Microsoft for reinstating the Start button, while others are dismayed that the button eschews Windows 7's familiar Start menu.

[ Enterprises haven't exactly been lining up for Win8. Will 8.1 change the game? Read Microsoft Courts Businesses With Windows 8.1 Reveal. ]

The inclusion of Office, though, is less controversial; Windows 8 is still the only tablet platform that can run legacy x86 software, and among these applications, Microsoft's long-running productivity suite is easily the most widely used.

As a result, Microsoft Office plays a central role in Windows 8's BYOD potential. With many businesses still invested heavily in Windows 7 migrations, enterprise adoption of the OS has been particularly sluggish, even compared to other new Windows releases, which corporations typically avoid until a service pack has been issued.

For the time being, the OS's fortunes consequently rest with consumers, and now that device prices are coming down, a tablet that runs both Angry Birds and Microsoft Office fills an ostensible market gap.

Alluding to this point, Reller said in her keynote, "Bringing the power of Windows to tablets is a really big part of the vision of Windows 8 and of Windows RT. [They are] really a new class of tablets that offers more value and capability than today's tablets." Redmond also reiterated Office's importance in a blog post that complemented Reller's announcement, noting a May 2012 Morgan Stanley study that found 61% of tablet shoppers ranked Microsoft Office as their most important software.

For Windows RT, the addition of Outlook provides a useful enterprise upgrade. The OS launched with pre-installed versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote but forced users to rely on either the stripped-down features of Win8's native Mail app or a Web-based alternative. WinRT has struggled to the extent that it makes Windows 8's anemic market share look healthy, so Outlook alone might not be enough to revitalize the platform, which, notwithstanding its Office apps, lacks x86 compatibility. Even so, with so many users already accustomed to Outlook, the inclusion can only help.

As for tablets that run the full version of Windows 8, Reller said, "Starting with the back-to-school lineup, and in some cases even earlier, Windows x86 tablets will come with Office." The bundle will not include Outlook, however, and though Reller did not expressly say so, a Redmond representative told Engadget that the deal applies only to tablets with screen sizes of 10 inches or less. Though this disqualifies some models, it should include the bulk of low-cost options -- a point Reller emphasized when she noted that OEMs are building opening price point tablets as well as great premium tablets.

It remains to be seen, of course, if users find Office useful on smaller devices, which are associated more with content consumption than document creation. Still, if OEMs produce ergonomically pleasing keyboard docks, smaller Win8 tablets could at least somewhat buck this trend. It's also possible that some users want a device that not only offers an ultraportable connection to the office but that can also connect to an external monitor for more intensive tasks. For such cases, Win8.1 devices, even those with small screens, will be in a class by themselves.

Though Office plays a crucial role in Win8's prospects, Reller also praised the OS's divisive Modern UI, the growing catalogue of Windows Store apps, and the changes that Win8.1 will soon bring. Users have been less impressed with Microsoft's new interface, however, and it's unclear if Redmond's update will change that.

On that theme, corporate VP for Windows program management Antoine Leblond joined Reller onstage to deliver the first public demonstration of Windows 8.1's new features. Redmond also posted a video to its Windows blog, in which Jensen Harris of the Windows User Experience Team covers the same ground Leblond did, even using most of the same phrasing.

For the most part, Leblond's presentation included only the Win8.1 features he'd already confirmed in a recent blog post. Microsoft is withholding many details until June 26, when it will detail the update at its Build conference in San Francisco, so it's no surprise that the Computex demo was light on new information. What little Leblond revealed simply elaborated on known features and involved minor-but-useful upgrades, such as the ability to snap a photo or answer a Skype call without unlocking the device.

Even so, the Modern UI in the demo appeared more engaging than the current version, thanks in part to new controls that let users customize backgrounds and Live Tile sizes. Leblond argued that these tweaks are functional as well as aesthetic, noting, for instance, that larger tiles mean more information can be viewed with a quick glance.

This sort of flexibility is useful, but it's probably not enough to sway would-be Windows 8 users who are still on the fence. With Win8.1's big reveal less than a month away, though, these users will soon know what else Redmond is bringing to the table.

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