Microsoft’s release of Office 2019 this week has triggered a bit of confusion in the user community. Your questions are understandable, as this release marks an important change in the way that Microsoft makes and sells its office productivity solutions.
And if this release is confusing to you, take heart: It’s confusing to just about everyone, myself included. So I spoke with Microsoft corporate vice president Jared Spataro at the software giant’s Ignite 2018 conference. And he neatly cleared up the confusion.
Office 2019 is the latest version of Microsoft’s standalone Office productivity suite. It’s what the firm now calls the “perpetual” version of Office, or what old-timers like myself might still call “on-premises.” And that’s for good reason: As Spataro told me, Office 2019 doesn’t offer any of the cloud-connected features that Office 365 subscribers would see using the exact same apps. Thus, it is, in fact, a subset of Microsoft Office compared to the versions of the suite—or, the applications—that Office 365 subscribers see.
This is an important distinction: For the first time ever, a major new release of Microsoft Office provides less functionality than what current users—in this case, Office 365 subscribers—already have access to.
This isn’t the way Microsoft markets the product, of course. And it’s fair to say that Office 2019—e.g. the perpetual version of Microsoft Office—provides more functionality than its predecessor, Office 2016.
For Office 365, Microsoft quietly dropped the year-based version numbers from the Office desktop applications. You can see this when you start up Word or one of the other applications: The about box that pops up while it loads will read “Office 365” rather than the version number (like “2016” or “2019”).
And this isn’t marketing. At its core, the version of, say, Word that you launch as a perpetual customer (Word 2016 or 2019) is the same as the version you launch as an Office 365 subscriber. But the Office 365 version of the app includes far more features. And if you’re paying attention to this part of the Microsoft ecosystem, as I do, you know that it includes far more features: Microsoft adds tons of new capabilities to its Office 365 apps—across PC and Mac desktops, mobile, web, and online services—every single month. It makes the Windows 10 update schedule look slow by comparison.
“We’ve evolved Office 365 to address how customers work today,” Mr. Spataro told me. “They want to use the bigger screens on PCs or Macs for creation, but they also want to work offline, and on mobile devices. So we’re adapting Office to take advantage of each device type and scenario.”
I’ve long described Office 365 as a “no-brainer” for individuals (Office 365 Personal), families (Office 365 Home), and businesses of all sizes and types (Office 365 commercial). In the beginning, this assessment was tied to two major advantages: The 1 TB of OneDrive-based storage that each customer receives and liberal access to the Office desktop applications and mobile/web apps across multiple devices.
But over the past year or two, the rapid addition of new cloud-connected features, many of which taking advantage of Microsoft’s unique AI prowess, has tipped the scales. So Office 365 is absolutely still a no-brainer. But now it’s for three primary reasons, not two. And thanks to this rapid release schedule, which includes routine quality updates in addition to the new features, Office 365 customers are also more secure as well.
But back to Office 2019 and the confusion that this release has triggered.
Office 2019 provides all of the fixes and non-cloud updates that Microsoft has added to Office 2016 over the past three years and packages them in a more traditional form. It’s aimed at those customers—commercial first, but a version for consumers is coming soon, too—that will only use the product on a single PC and in “air gap” scenarios in which the PC is rarely or even never online.
And it’s not about addressing a Luddite segment of the audience. There are customers who need to use Office in situations in which they’d like to be online but cannot for various reasons. Submarines, perhaps, or oil platforms.
Most surprisingly, Office 2019 isn’t the end of the line, either. Contrary to my suspicions, Microsoft isn’t being wishy-washy about whether or not it will release an Office 2022 (or whatever).
“We will do another perpetual release of Office,” Spataro told me. “We will absolutely do more.”
So the big change with Office 2019, really, is that Microsoft is redefining what the version numbers mean. If you do see a version number—2019, in this case—then you’re looking at a perpetual or on-premises version of Office that does not benefit from the amazing array of cloud- and AI-based features that Microsoft is adding for Office 365 customers. You’re looking at less, not more.
And this means that Office 365 subscribers are already using versions of Word and the other Office desktop applications that are superior in every way to what’s available in Office 2019. You’re not going to get an Office 2019 update on Office 365. You’re just going to continue getting more functional and quality updates to Office. Every single month.
Welcome to the new Office.
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