Microsoft unveils 'ambitious' Office tools

"This is the most ambitious release of Office "This is the most ambitious release of Office that we have ever done," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said Monday in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Bloomberg David Paul Morris

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SAN FRANCISCO -- New versions of Microsoft's word processing, spreadsheet and email programs unveiled Monday will sport touch-based controls and emphasize Internet storage to reflect an industrywide shift away from the company's strengths in desktop and laptop computers.

The new offerings appear designed to help Microsoft retain an important source of revenue as more people access documents from mobile devices. The new Office suite also reflects the fact that people tend to work from multiple computers -- perhaps a desktop in the office, a laptop at home and a tablet computer on a train and a smartphone at the doctor's office.

Like an upcoming redesign of Microsoft's Windows operating system, the new Office will respond to touch as well as commands delivered on a computer keyboard or mouse.

The addition of touch-based controls will enable Office to extend its franchise into the rapidly growing tablet computer market. Apple dominates that market with the iPad, though Microsoft has plans to compete with its own tablet, called Surface.

The programs will store documents online through Microsoft's SkyDrive service by default, meaning users will have to change settings to store documents on their own computer. The programs also will remember settings, including where you last left off in a document, as you move locations.

The Internet-based services approach is one Google has been promoting with its own suite of similar programs, threatening Microsoft's dominance.

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"This is the most ambitious release of Office that we have ever done," chief executive Steve Ballmer said in unveiling the software in San Francisco.

A preview version of the new Office suite is available online at office.com/preview. Microsoft Corp. isn't saying when it will go on sale or what the price will be. Those details will come in the fall.

Microsoft will continue selling the package as stand-alone software that can be installed on computers, but the company expects the bulk of users will opt for an Internet-based version, which comes with automatic updates for a recurring subscription fee.

Other features in the new Office include:

Inkling, which lets you use a stylus to write on a device's screen. Handwritten notes are converted automatically to text.

Integration with Yammer, a social network for businesses, and with Skype, a video chat service. Microsoft agreed last month to buy Yammer for $1.2 billion, and spent $8.5 billion to buy Skype last year.

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