For the first time Microsoft is tempting Office users to rent, not own, software that for decades they've bought as a standalone program. It's not a foreign proposition. We pay annual subscription fees for our anti-virus software. Last April, Adobe rolled out its Creative Cloud subscription package for renting Photoshop, Illustrator, and Dreamweaver.
Now Microsoft has hopped on the rental bandwagon and hopes you will start forking over a yearly subscription fee. For Microsoft that beats someone buying Office 2010 and never coughing up more money for a newer version. It's all about creating an annuity.
So, should you buy or should you rent? For individuals, there is no one answer. Let's take a closer look at your options and consider the pros and cons. But first a run-down of what your Office options are.
Originally designed for businesses, Office 365 allows you to always have the latest version of Office for a yearly subscription fee of $100. You can still buy a boxed version of Office 2013 at your local computer shop with prices starting at $140 for Office 2013 Home and Student. But Microsoft is pushing the $100 per year option for Office 365.
With Office 365 Home and Business you get access to most apps from the Office suite including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, and Publisher. Office 2013 Home and Student, by comparison offers you just Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for $140. To get the boxed version of Outlook 2013 you need to fork over another $80 for Office 2013 Home and Business.
For those with multiple PCs
The Office 365 subscription gets harder to resist the more PCs you have. For those with two PCs, Office 365 will cost you $50 per PC, compared to paying $280 for the traditional desktop licenses needed for two PCs. When you get to $20 per PC (per year) for five PCs, compared to $700 to install Office Home and Student on five PCs, the subscription model becomes a no-brainer.
Five PC installations for $100 a year is a pretty good deal. On top of that, you also get a few freebies including 60 minutes of international Skype calling per month and an extra 20GB of SkyDrive storage.
If you purchase Office 2013, you only get a single installation for $140. You also get an extra 5GB of SkyDrive storage.
You want Web access to Office via Office on Demand
As if installing Office on five PCs wasn't enough, with Office 365 you can use a neat new feature called Office on Demand that quickly downloads a virtualized version of select Office apps to a PC that isn't yours. This can be a friend's PC, a computer at an Internet cafe, or a public PC terminal.
Office on Demand lets you run several Office apps including Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Access, and Publisher. Once you're done with the Office program it stops working and doesn't count against your Office installs.
The downside to Office on Demand is that it only works for Windows PCs. You can't use Office on Demand on a Mac, Linux box, Chromebook, or a mobile device. Most of these devices can use Microsoft's Office Web apps in a pinch, Mobile devices aren't supported, but in a pinch there's a workaround for Android and iOS users running the mobile version of Chrome.
When my colleague Yardena Arar tried out the Office on Demand feature she noticed a few snags when it came to usability. For one, she noted a slight delay in saving documents. Unfortunately the wow-factor of accessing Office on Demand is diminished when you learn it has to be a on a Windows PC.
Office 2013 was tweaked to work better with touchscreens, but unfortunately only the Windows 8 variety. That means our Android and iPads will have to sit on the sidelines until Microsoft allows access to Office on Demand from those devices.
For new feature junkies and security minded
Subscription software means you will always be able to update to the latest and greatest version of Office. As with previous versions of Office, you'll get the latest security patches, an important feature considering Microsoft in December warned that hackers are turning their attention to uncovering Office exploits.
Beyond security updates, however, you'll also get new features that come out. And if a brand new version of Office is introduced in another three years, you'll get to upgrade as part of your subscription.
I just use Word and Excel on my desktop
Here is some simple math for those who are not Office power users with one PC. For one PC, Office 365 is $100 per year. For one PC, Office Home and Student is $140. You can use Office Home and Student for as many years as you like. You'll do fine with a boxed version of Office 2013.
If you're still on the rental fence
Like any subscription product, your ability to use the service is tied to your yearly subscription fee. If you stop paying, your Office software goes away. You'll still have all your documents on SkyDrive or your local hard drive, of course, but you won't be able to use the editing features in Office once your subscription runs out.
If you prefer to own your software or don't think you'll be willing to maintain an Office 365 subscription long term, then the boxed version of Office 2013 might be for you. The downside is when Microsoft moves to the next version of Office in a few years, you won't have the latest and greatest version like Office 365 users will.
For cross platform mobile warriors looking for a mobile Office solution
Along with your new Office 365 subscription, Microsoft would really like it if you used Windows Phone for accessing Office on a mobile device. But the reality is most of us are using either an iPhone or an Android device for our smartphone and tablet needs. That means when it comes to editing Office documents on these platforms you have to find an alternative to Office. That's not such a huge deal on iOS since Apple's iWork package is available, and there are alternatives on Android as well.
Microsoft has yet to announce versions of Office for Android and iOS, but there are persistent rumors saying mobile versions of Office are in the works. It's not clear, however, if Microsoft would release Office for iOS and Android, or just for Apple's platform.
Office 365 is a novel way to use Office and some of the free perks, including those Skype minutes, are a nice addition. But paying for Office every year might take some getting used to for anyone tied to the traditional desktop software model.