The next several months should prove to be monumental from a Microsoft platforms perspective. But it’s not just Windows 8, Windows Server 8, and Windows Phone 8 that promise to recast Microsoft’s core platforms for the future. The software giant is also working on its most massive upgrade yet to the Office family of products. And if all goes well, Microsoft will for the first time upgrade virtually all of the products and services within the Office sphere at the same time. It’s an audacious plan that could unravel for any number of reasons.

This next Office wave, dubbed Office 15, encompasses not just the traditional, PC-based productivity suite, but also the Office servers (Exchange, SharePoint, Lync), hosted online services (Office 365), web-based Office Web Apps (for SkyDrive and SharePoint), various mobile apps, and more. As with the Windows “better together” strategy, Microsoft feels it can make a great case for why these solutions, while great on their own, work better when upgraded in tandem. And although staggered releases have been generally trouble free in the past (we’ll forget about that version of Outlook that wasn’t full-featured until a delayed Exchange Server shipped), the plan for this round isn’t so much wave as it is tsunami.

With Office 15, the venerable productivity platform evolves yet again for a new age. Now the major part of Microsoft’s biggest business unit by revenues, Office is at a crossroads where the future direction will dramatically affect not just Office but Microsoft. With Windows revenues decreasing, and the Windows 8 future cloudy thanks to the rise of post-PC device platforms such as the Apple iPad, the question before Microsoft is simple: Should it push Office applications and functionality on alternative platforms at the expense of Windows? Or should it keep the best Office capabilities in-house and only on Windows?

We’ll know which way the pendulum swings soon enough, if not at the Microsoft TechEd 2012 show, then certainly by the fall launch window for Windows 8, Windows Server 8, and Windows Phone 8. But early indications are that Microsoft is making a bold push with Office towards alternative platforms, starting, if my sources are correct, with Microsoft Outlook, which could be the next major Office mobile app for iPad and Android. Beyond that are plans for mobile versions of Office for iOS (iPhone/iPad) and Android that will rival the Office Mobile versions on Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 on ARM (Windows on ARM—WOA).

I’ve been arguing for exactly this strategy for years, and while Windows boss Steven Sinofsky probably does have the clout to push Microsoft back from the brink to focus on a Windows-first strategy, it is in fact his former division, Office, that should be pulling the strings. Put another way, Microsoft’s future growth could rely less on its OSs and more on heterogeneous platforms such as Office, System Center and Intune device and PC management, entertainment properties such as Xbox, and other solutions that can integrate well with other systems.

Regardless of this potential future, we do know that Microsoft will deliver what we currently call Office 15. And we know that this traditional software will be supported by a major upgrade to the Office Web Apps and to servers such as Exchange and SharePoint. We’ll hit on each of these Office 15 initiatives in coming months, but for now let’s focus on the Office 15 productivity suite itself.

Office 15: The Mile-High View

In keeping with the move to electronically delivered software, Office 15 will be made available as a service as well as in traditional software packaging. The service-based Office version uses the Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V) technologies to deliver the full Office productivity suite in a form that can be more easily managed centrally. Using Microsoft’s Click-to-Run technology, you will also be able to stream Office 15 to user’s desktops during installation so they can be using Office before the full suite is even downloaded.

Application virtualization offers several benefits over traditionally deployed software, of course. And while this might seem minor, it means that Office 15 can be installed side-by-side with a previous Office version, a key advantage for those evaluating the new suite. Previously, it was difficult and tedious to run different Office versions side-by-side or, in the case of applications such as Outlook, impossible.

From an applications perspective, Office 15 isn’t blazing the way with new applications, but then the suite is so full-featured it doesn’t really have any obvious functional holes at this point. Instead, we see an evolution of existing capabilities from application to application and the formalization of a new design language, if you will, that’s equally at home on both traditional PCs and the touch-based Windows devices that are expected to become increasingly popular.

Key to this dual-use nature is a new, washed-out user experience that pervades across the app with just color-coded accents to break the monotony. According to Microsoft, this is an attempt to highlight the content you’re working on and deemphasize the surrounding UI “chrome.” It’s a Metro-based design principle, similar to the work Microsoft has previously done with Internet Explorer 9 and 10, Windows Phone, and, of course, Windows 8.

These new Metro-style user experiences also provide a minimized ribbon for a cleaner look and a new Touch Mode that basically enlarges and spaces out UI elements—buttons, menus, and other controls—making them easier to tap with a finger. This effect is often a bit too subtle, and for that majority of users on traditional PCs, somewhat superfluous.

Each of the applications also provides a new Start Experience, which should be a boon to less experienced users. (And if you’re familiar with the Mac versions of Office, it will be immediately recognizable as an interface that debuted there first.) This experience basically provides a visual grid of prebuilt templates so you can create a nicely designed document (or whatever) from the get-go. Power users will be excited to discover they can disable this screen.

Finally, with this version, Office is embracing the cloud and offering access to SharePoint- and SkyDrive-based document repositories in a far more seamless fashion than did previous versions. For many, the notion of locally stored documents, locked to a single hard drive on a single PC, will disappear.

Excel 15

Microsoft’s oldest Office application picks up a new Quick Analysis Lens to more quickly and easily create visual representations of your data. The application also recommends Charts and PivotTables that are most appropriate for the selected data, rather than let you fuddle around through the many available templates.

Word 15

The world’s most popular word processor picks up a nice new Read Mode that uses those Metro ideals to present documents—including, for the first time, PDF documents—in a nice display that automatically reflows using columns depending on the screen width and orientation. Like many Office 15 applications, Word also features a handy bookmark feature called Resume Reading that helps you pick up document re-edits exactly where you were the last time you used the application. The Navigation pane has been improved to be actually usable in this release, and a new Present Online feature, similar to that in PowerPoint, lets you share documents with others through a browser, even if they don’t have Word installed.

PowerPoint 15

Microsoft’s presentation package finally defaults to a widescreen 16:9 format, though it will give businesses stuck on the old 4:3 VGA format fits until they figure out how to switch back. New Visual Basic–like positioning guides make it easier than ever to line up items on a slide, and a dramatically improved Presenter View provides a better-than-ever two-screen experience. PowerPoint provides the Resume Reading feature, too, so you can pick up editing where you left off.

OneNote 15

OneNote came of age in Office 2010, thanks to two factors: First, OneNote was for the first time included by default with all mainstream versions of the suite. And second, this was when OneNote shed its reliance on PC-based notebooks and opened up to the cloud, a scenario that's now replicating across the other applications in Office 15. To follow up that success, Office 15 provides improved digital ink support to take advantage of the coming generation of new Tablet PCs and other touch devices, better tables support, better cloud-to-PC syncing, and, perhaps most crucially, an ever-expanding set of OneNote apps for mobile platforms including Windows Phone, iPhone, iPad, Android phones, and Nokia Symbian Belle handsets.

Outlook 15

Hundreds of millions of users live in Outlook each day, making it the center of their professional and personal lives. And with Outlook 15, we’re getting a refined user experience with better navigation between the email, calendar, people, and tasks modules, and a new Peeks feature for quickly viewing information about your schedule, a person, a task, and other objects without leaving the current view and navigating to the relevant module. It features in-line replies, a new weather bar (in Calendar only, curiously), and finally integrates correctly with multiple email sources, including Hotmail (without requiring an add-on.) Speaking of add-ons, remember the Social Connector from Outlook 2010? That’s integrated as well.

Extensibility

Office 15 is also providing an interesting new extensibility platform, code-named Agave, which will work with both traditional, PC-based versions of Office as well as the Office Web Apps and Office servers. Agave provides what Microsoft called “web-powered experiences,” using a web extension model that utilizes web standards behind the scenes. Developers will be able to publicize their new add-ons using an Office Marketplace that will be accessible from within the applications and can be used by corporations to deliver secure, private solutions to their managed users.

Timing and Expectations

Internally, Microsoft is currently planning to complete development of all of the Office 15 products and services in November 2012, though a leaked road map suggests that they won’t actually ship to customers until very early 2013. Regardless of the actual ship date, I think it’s highly probable that one or more of the solutions will slip, and that as a result Microsoft will ship these products over a tight period of time, nearly simultaneously rather than simultaneously. (On a related note, you might recall that Microsoft is bundling a subset of the full Office suite—the applications Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—with WOA, the Windows 8 version aimed at iPad-like, ARM-based tablets and other touch devices. The timing of this release is tied to that of Windows 8, and it will likely ship before the other Office 15 wave products and services.)

What's Left

The big question, of course, is whether Office 15 offers a compelling upgrade. For those on Office 2010, I’d have to say no. But a huge percentage of Office customers are on older, less capable versions of the suite, and Office 15 is a sizable improvement over both Office 2003 and 2007. If you’re still using those products, you’ll want to evaluate Office 15 as soon as possible. A public beta should be available in June 2012, perhaps tied to TechEd.

Overall, Office 15 is compelling and forward-leaning. Microsoft’s embrace of cloud computing and virtualization technologies, in particular, is well done and make supporting and using this suite easier than ever. And that’s true regardless of the Office version you’re currently using.