Microsoft's new Office includes Office 2013 as well as new versions of the free Office Web Apps, the ever-expanding Office 365 online services, and hosted and on-premises versions of the Office servers. Microsoft will continue to offer Office products in traditional on-premises guise. But the big news this time around is with the services and the products that will be delivered and treated as services going forward. This isn’t a subtle distinction, and it dramatically changes the products and how they’re deployed and serviced going forward.

Office 2013

Given the sheer volume of Office-related products and services that Microsoft dumped on us in early 2013, you’re forgiven for not being sure whether the traditional, locally installed Office applications and suites still exist. They do. They can be procured, deployed, and managed in all the traditional ways with which you’re familiar. But individuals and—go figure—families have some very interesting new options with this release, which thanks to a new Office 365 version described below, can be purchased, deployed, and managed like an online service.

We’ll get to that in a moment. For now, let’s look at what’s changed with the suites.

As before, Office 2013 provides multiple suites, each with an ever-increasing set of included applications. If you’re a fan of this traditionally-installed software—or, perhaps more accurately, not a fan of software subscriptions—Microsoft has made one major negative change in Office 2013: All of the suites include just a single license and can thus be installed on only one Windows PC. So although you can buy the low-end Office Home & Student 2013, with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote 2013, multi-PC install rights are a thing of the past. Your $140 buys you just a single installation.

Next up the chain is Office Home & Business 2013. This suite includes all the applications from Home & Student, adds Outlook, and costs $219.99, again with just one PC license. Next, there’s Office Professional 2013: This includes all of the applications from Home & Business, plus Access and Publisher, and costs $399.99 per PC.

Most of the Office 2013 applications—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, and Access—can also be purchased individually for $109.99, although OneNote is $69.99. And businesses gain access to Office Standard 2013 and Professional Plus 2013, the latter of which adds InfoPath and Lync to the Professional application set, through volume licensing.

I’ve written a lot about Office 2013 on the SuperSite for Windows. One good place to start might be my series of Office 2013 feature focus articles, which I'll expand on over time.

Office 365

If you’re familiar with Office 365, you know that Microsoft improved on its previous attempt at online hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Office Communications (the Lync predecessor)—called Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite, or BPOS—and delivered a truly useful set of online services about 18 months ago. The initial Office 365 versions targeted businesses of various sizes and provided hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync.

I’ve held up Office 365 as proof that Microsoft could move quickly when it mattered, and this service is a stunning example of the firm taking highly successful and well-understood on-premises products and moving them to the cloud. My one niggling complaint, that Microsoft didn’t have a free offering to rival the free versions of Google Apps that most small businesses and individuals were using, was rendered moot in late 2012 when Google announced it was killing its free offering.

With this new Office wave, Office 365 soldiers forward but it picks up a decidedly consumer-oriented version as well. Dubbed Office 365 Home Premium, this new version of Office 365 is an odd duck for several reasons. But the most obvious is that this offering is Office 365 in name only: It is the only Office 365 version that doesn't offer access to hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync.

Instead, Office 365 Home Premium is aimed at households that have multiple PCs and devices and are looking to use Office 2013 on up to five of them. It’s inexpensive--$99.99 per year or $9.99 per month—and comes with some extras—20GB of additional SkyDrive storage and 60 minutes of Skype world minutes each month, for starters—and the version of Office you get is analogous to Professional, making it a much better deal than any of Microsoft’s business offerings. It’s almost a no-brainer, especially for those IT pros with families that want to keep the work lights burning in the off-hours.

The trick to Office 365 Home Premium is that it assumes everyone using the service already has a Hotmail or Outlook.com account, SkyDrive, and Skype … which they do, since the one requirement this service has is that you must have a Microsoft account. But here’s the thing: Thanks to the pliability of Office 2013, you can acquire the suite at home cheaply with Office 365 Home Premium, then configure it to use any number of SkyDrive and SharePoint/SharePoint Online accounts. And yes, you can mix and match. This makes the service even doubly more impressive, I think.

SharePoint 2013 and SharePoint Online

Looking at Microsoft’s Office servers—and the hosted online services, which, in this version and going forward, are both more powerful and will be updated more frequently—I’m most interested in SharePoint. One of the firm’s least heralded success stories, SharePoint is one of those servers—excuse me, services—that's immediately obviously useful, and as time marches forward, the online, hosted version has finally caught up to the on-premises version in SharePoint 2013 guise. And like the rest of Office, SharePoint now can appeal to the entire customer gamut, too, from individuals (who opt for Office 365 Small Business) to small businesses, to enterprises, government, and education.

SharePoint has Yammer integration now too, thanks to a 2012 purchase of the company and its technologies. Yammer expands on SharePoint’s already impressive business-oriented social network functionality. But maybe the best aspect to this integration is that Microsoft has simplified the deployment and management of Yammer as well as the licensing costs: Yammer Basic Standalone is free and Yammer Enterprise Standalone is just $3 per user per month. If you’re coming through the Office 365 business packages, pricing starts at $8 per user per month (for the entire suite of functionality).

Using SharePoint Online in Office 365, I’m struck by a few changes. The service picks up a more streamlined ribbon-based UI that’s akin to what you’ll see in Office 365, and the layout and presentation of various interfaces is cleaner and, dare I say it, more “Metro-like.” But it’s not just a pretty face. There are some interesting functional changes too.

In this revision, SharePoint has replaced SharePoint Workspace with the horribly misnamed SkyDrive Pro. If you’re familiar with the SkyDrive desktop application, this is identical except that it connects to your SharePoint document storage on the back end instead of to the consumer-oriented SkyDrive service. That is, it integrates SharePoint directly into your PC’s file system so that you can interact with your SharePoint content just as you do with the documents in My Documents. In fact, many will simply point My Documents to this SkyDrive Pro folder structure and be done with it.

By the way, in the same way that you can mix and match SkyDrive and SharePoint in the Office applications, you can also have both SkyDrive Pro (SharePoint) and SkyDrive desktop applications installed on your PC. They will both happily sync to your work (SharePoint) and personal (SkyDrive) data stores without any issues or conflicts. Note, however, that you can have only one instance of each, whereas the Office applications let you integrate any number of SharePoint repositories and SkyDrive accounts.

The biggest change to SharePoint, perhaps, is the new application model, which is shared with Office 2013 applications. Code-named Agave, it provides extensibility of SharePoint using readily-understood HTML 5 technologies—including JavaScript and CSS—so you can deploy your own apps or browse a new Office App Store to find professionally made apps from third parties. If you’re familiar with the extensibility model used in previous SharePoint versions, you know that SharePoint Online lagged behind on-premises versions fairly significantly because of the different architectures. But most of these issues have been resolved in SharePoint 2013.

Also new to this release is a set of mobile apps aimed at Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone, and iOS (Apple iPad and iPhone). These include a news feed app for keeping up with the documents and other items you’re following in SharePoint—essentially a native version of SharePoint’s enterprise portal functionality—and a SkyDrive Pro app that will let you browse your own documents from mobile devices. Microsoft plans to expand support for these apps to Android in the future, too, but for now Android users are served by mobile web experiences.

Office in a Nutshell

The products and services I've mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg, and much of what I’ve related is, of course, consumer focused. This is by design: Office remains the productivity workhorse you’ve used for years and understand intimately. But the big change in this release, I think, is the blurring of the lines between work and home and between service and on-premises product. Microsoft’s greatest strength heading into the cloud computing age is that it alone can offer hybrid solutions that bridge the gap between the past—on-premises servers, locally installed software—and the future—cloud services, with data synced to ultra-portable mobile devices—not just for the time being, but going forward in whatever configuration your business requires.

Taken alongside other recent moves at the company, such as the release of Windows 8 and Windows RT, the latter of which runs on an entirely new class of software, these new Office solutions point the way to the future. And even those cloud doubters should take note of the fact that Microsoft’s solutions, uniquely, don’t actually require you to give anything up to embrace this new, more efficient way of doing things. Firms like Google, which sees everything solely through the lens of the Internet and web services, and Apple, which pretty much makes just expensive consumer electronics, will never offer this choice.

This is important because Microsoft sees itself as a devices and services firm. Oddly enough, this is perhaps best exemplified in the new Office, which, incidentally, will expand later in 2013 to embrace rival mobile platforms including iOS and Android, I’m told. Office isn’t just emblematic of Microsoft, or of Microsoft’s aspirations, but is rather the almost literal embodiment of Microsoft. This is the future of the company, and for those of us who support it and its products, and the people who use them, the new Office is the clearest sign yet that it intends to flourish in this ever-changing market. Products like Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 are of course important and innovative in their own ways. But Office is successful on an entirely different level.

But don’t take my word for it. Office 2013, Office 365, and the new Office services and servers are all available now for your evaluation. Whether you’ve been skipping every second to third Office release or not, this is one version of Office you’re going to want to consider.