Microsoft Office 2016 is here — will anyone buy it?

The 2016 version of the ubiquitous Office software rolled out this week, but with competing programs such as Google Docs and OpenOffice performing many of the same tasks for free, many are wondering how long Microsoft can maintain its lock on the home and business markets.

Competitors like Google Docs and OpenOffice perform many of the same tasks for free

Microsoft's Kirk Koenigsbauer discusses the Microsoft Office app during an Apple event in San Francisco earlier this year. Microsoft recently released a series of Office apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, and Mac computers - part of its effort to catch up to competitors in the mobile and non-Windows space. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

There was a time, not too long ago, that Microsoft Office was like oxygen. It was everywhere and pretty essential if you wanted to get through your day — especially, if that day involved sitting at a desk. 

Documents would be written in MS Word, emailed to co-workers and clients via MS Outlook in advance of meetings that — as sure as the sky is blue — would feature slide presentations cooked up in MS PowerPoint, with a few graphs thrown in courtesy of MS Excel. 

The suite of programs has been a must-have for businesses and many home users for years, feeding a lot of money into the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, which last year drew as much as a quarter of its revenue from Office. 

But competitors are nipping at its heels, most notably the Google and OpenOffice suites of apps, which do most of the same jobs as Office for free. 

It's not really a product; it's more about buying a service.- George Goodall , Info-Tech Research Group

​Google has won over many home users, educators and — full disclosure — is the app of choice for many at CBC News. This article was written in Google Docs. The interviews were arranged through Gmail. 

Will the rise of those competitors cut into sales of Office 2016, which debuted earlier this week

Possibly, but not in the world of big business, according to industry analyst T.J. Keitt, with Forrester Research, a technology and market research company based in Cambridge, Mass. 

Office is still the "gold standard" when it comes to working with documents, spreadsheets and presentations among Fortune 500 companies, Keitt says. 

"All the competition in this space has really failed to make a dent in the business world," he said. 

"Microsoft owns those categories on desktop."  

'Niche threat'

The "on desktop" part is key, because Microsoft stumbled in the early days of the mobile market and is now playing catch-up. The company recently released a series of Office apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices, and Mac computers.

Microsoft's Office 365 subscription service is aimed at people who use programs such as Word and Excel on multiple platforms. (Microsoft/Associated Press)
Executives say the company recognizes that, these days, many people use a variety of devices and not all of them are based on its Windows operating system. 

They say the new Windows version of Office is designed to be consistent and familiar, although not identical, to the Office apps that work on other systems. 

The business market "is really [Microsoft's] to lose," says George Goodall, senior analyst with Toronto-based Info-Tech Research Group.

"The reality is those [competitors] are great stand-alone tools, but they don't represent whole workplace packages like Microsoft offers and has always offered," he said. 

"They're a niche threat at this stage." 

Product or service? 

But Microsoft is, in some respects, catching up to Google. The new Office will let multiple people edit the same document simultaneously — a feature that has long been a part of the cloud-based software put forth by the search giant and other competitors. 

Microsoft previously introduced a similar feature in its Web version of Office, but the 2016 version marks the first time it's available in the more powerful stand-alone product.

The company is also nudging customers to buy the new Office 2016 as part of an online subscription service, known as Office 365, as the traditional practice of selling one-time updates seems threatened. Office 365, which starts at $70 US a year, also includes online storage and other services that let users access their files on any internet-connected device. Microsoft plans to release feature updates monthly to subscribers only.

Microsoft is "pointing its ship into the cloud," says Keitt. 

And that, for home and small-office users, is the real change with this version, says Goodall.

"What's really changing is how we buy it," Goodall says. "It's not really a product; it's more about buying a service." 

Rather than dropping a couple of hundred dollars for a box with a disc inside, consumers are asked to pay less while, essentially, moving their data into Microsoft's house. 

They're not required to stay, but, Goodall notes, Microsoft is probably betting that inertia will keep most customers in place for many years to come — paying another $70 each year. 

"The reality is, [consumers] probably aren't going to transition," he said, 

With files from Associated Press

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