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Updated Monday, February 4, 2013 at 08:31 AM

Should you rent or buy Microsoft’s Office software?

By -Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology columnist

Families are just getting used to the complicated data-sharing plans that wireless companies rolled out last year.

Now here comes Microsoft, with a new subscription model for Office, the most widely used app of all, a near essential software package for people around the world.

Microsoft is easing in this new approach, encouraging home users to start renting the software for $100 per year instead of buying a new version on disc every few years.

In an age of Netflix and 4G data plans — when everything is just another $8 to $10 per month, just the cost of a few lattes, right? — it may not seem like a big deal.

At first glance, the cost looks comparable to the traditional disc version.

But it deserves a closer look by anyone who depends on having Office at home and plans to buy a new PC. They’ll have to act more like a corporate tech manager and give some thought to which approach works best for their situation.

In particular, families and homes with multiple computers are going to have to run the numbers carefully, just as they did last year when AT&T and Verizon introduced their new shared data plans for cellphones.

After doing these calculations in my house, I concluded that Microsoft is offering intriguing new options that could make it easier to organize calendars, share to-do lists and give everyone the latest software tools.

At the same time, Microsoft is reducing options that cheapskates like me have used in the past to get low-cost or free versions of Office at home.

It’s worth going through this exercise because the latest version, which went on sale last week, is a great collection of software and online services, a combination that’s finally starting to sing in harmony with Microsoft’s PC offerings.

After you get it set up and tied in to your email account and the online storage account that comes with the software, the sharing and saving and syncing of files online feel smooth and natural. Especially if you’re not worried about Microsoft storing all your files, and you don’t mind the slightly fuzzy-looking text that shows up on some PC displays.

At times you may think that you’re using zippy Web apps designed by a loft full of San Francisco hipsters, rather than a khaki-clad battalion of Microsoft engineers churning out another update of its stalwart productivity suite.

It’s remarkable that the Redmond team can figure out ways to make you want a new version of Office, but there is a laundry list of new features that heavy users will like.

My favorite is the ability to “peek” at applications. When you’re responding to an email and you want to see if you’re available on a particular day, you don’t have to exit the mail and open the calendar.

You hover the cursor over the calendar icon and your calendar pops up in a small window, in which you hover over different days to see what’s happening.

Microsoft needed this version to dazzle and help sell the subscription model. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the new approach go down.

Wooing parents

The software may sell itself to busy, wired parents. Microsoft demonstrated the appeal to a group of reporters recently with the help of a Texas mom, Kim Grant, who tested Office at home and volunteered to help its marketing team.

The subscription plan gives everyone in Grant’s house the latest version of Office with minimal hassle, but things really change when everyone uses the tools together online, she said.

The $100 per year version, called Office 365, includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher and Access and can be installed on up to five PCs.

It also includes 60 minutes of Skype calls per month, 20 gigabytes of online storage in Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, plus the ability to access Web versions of the apps from other computers via a browser.

Grant said she now wakes up and turns to Outlook, planning her day with a shared calendar that has color-coded appointments for each member of the family.

A part-time lawyer, she keeps files saved online so she can squeeze in work while waiting to pick kids up from school or practice. Grocery lists and wish lists are also at her fingertips, through a smartphone or tablet, and she uses SkyDrive to share photos and documents with nonprofits and kids’ sports teams.

You can cobble together a system like that without using any Microsoft products, but the company is betting that the convenience of its complete package will be worth $100 a year.

The cost is almost negligible compared with the $3,000 a year or more a family may pay for wireless and broadband services.

On a disc

You can still get the new version of Office on a disc. But it’s now more expensive for those with multiple computers.

The “home and student” version starts at $140 and can be installed only on one machine; the option to install it on three PCs is no longer available.

Also going away are the free, advertising-supported “starter” versions of Office that came with Windows 7 PCs.

On Windows 8 PCs, you get only a one-month trial of Office 365.

The availability of free, premium digital music, video and news has dwindled over the last few years and now it’s happening to software as well.

Analyzing the cost of this change gets complicated when you try to compare subscription price with what you’ll end up paying pay per year to use the disc version.

People used to replace their PCs every three or four years, but the machines have become so powerful and stable that people are using them for much longer. Or they may replace them with a Web tablet.

Market slows

This is an issue for Microsoft because most people buy Office when they buy a new PC. Now they’re doing that less often.

No wonder Microsoft’s offering such an enticing package with Office 365.

Instead of waiting five or six years for you to buy your next $150 version of Office, the company would prefer that you pay $100 per year. Big companies have gone this route for years, and now it’s time for home users.

The Microsoft bill will add up over time, and consumers may end up spending more.

Still, it might be worthwhile if you’ve become domestic information-technology manager, overseeing a small fleet of PCs and devices around the house.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com


Microsoft
Microsoft’s Office subscription offers a combination of software and online services that’s singing in harmony with Microsoft’s PC offerings.




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