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Microsoft Releases Previews of Office 2013, SharePoint 2013 and Exchange 2013

Microsoft followed up on a "customer preview" launch of its next-generation Office 365 services this week by announcing the availability of preview trials of other 2013-branded products.

Those previews include 2013 versions of SharePoint, Exchange, Lync, Office Web Apps Server, Project, Visio and Office Professional Plus. Microsoft has a single portal for downloading those trial applications, which can be found at its new Office site page here. Those releases come a day after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Office Division, officiated over the launch of the next Office 365, which includes an actual service-enabled version of the full Microsoft Office productivity suite.

The Many Faces of Office 2013
Koenigsbauer had explained during the launch event that it is possible to test the service-enabled Office 2013 offered via Office 365 side-by-side with other premises-installed Office apps (since the Office 365 version of Office 2013 really is a service). However, Microsoft provides a caveat at the Office Professional Plus 2013 preview download page that this Professional Plus preview version doesn't support "side-by-side operation with older versions of Office" and that "you must uninstall the existing version of Office" to try it. That's apparently because Office Professional Plus 2013 isn't a service; it's an installed product.

For those looking for a step-by-step guide to installing the Office 2013 customer preview, details can be found in this Microsoft blog post.

This potential confusion over the service and premises-installed Office versions partly stems from Microsoft's choice of the "Office 365" name, since the Office version that Microsoft has been offering with the Office 365 service wasn't cloud enabled (until this week). Users have to install Office Professional Plus and maintain it on their own premises, unlike the other services Microsoft provides via Office 365. The other Office 365 services sold by Microsoft on a subscription basis include SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and Lync Online.

Another possible point of confusion concerns Office Web Apps (OWA), which are browser-based versions of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word. OWAs are not full-featured versions of the Microsoft Office productivity apps, although Microsoft has been slowly building up the supported features in those Web versions. New improvements in OWA 2013 include PowerPoint support for animations and transitions, a new Excel "interactive view" that supports table data on the Web, touch-enabled interfaces for use on smartphones, and coauthoring collaboration across Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word documents, according to John Jendrezak, a Microsoft Partner Group Program Manager, in an "Office Next" blog post.

Consumers with browser access can use OWAs at no cost, leveraging Microsoft's free SkyDrive service to store documents. However, the use of OWA in organizations requires the use of SharePoint. Microsoft now refers to its OWA product as "Office Web Apps Server," and, for enterprise users, it's now deemed to be a separate product from SharePoint, as explained in a SharePoint 2013 intro video for IT pros by Vesa Juvonen, a principal consultant at Microsoft. He added that Office Web Apps Server, in addition to supporting OWAs, also supports Office Mobile Web Apps -- presumably referring to browsers running on smartphones, although he didn't elaborate.

If that weren't confusing enough, Microsoft announced this week that it has rolled out something called "Office on demand." This service apparently is designed as a quick way to stream Office apps to a PC or device for users on the go.

"Office on Demand streams and launches a temporary copy of your personalized Office application without installing it permanently, and when you close the application, it and the files you were working on are gone," Jendrezak explained in his blog post.

SharePoint 2013 Improvements
Microsoft's SharePoint team blog offered some details about the 2013 versions that are available for testing, including previews of SharePoint 2013 and the no-cost SharePoint Foundation 2013. For the first time in its production history, Microsoft has simultaneously rolled out the Office 365 cloud-enabled SharePoint 2013 and the premises-installable server versions of SharePoint 2013, according to a blog post by Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of SharePoint.

Microsoft enhanced the social networking capabilities in SharePoint 2013 and plans to integrate Yammer's enterprise social networking capabilities when that acquisition closes. Microsoft announced a $1.2 billion purchase of Yammer in June.

Teper described a new storage service that works with SharePoint 2013 called "SkyDrive Pro." It works with both the hosted SharePoint 2013 service and the on-premises SharePoint 2013 server. While "SkyDrive" is Microsoft's consumer product, Teper stressed the "pro" aspect of this new offering, saying that SkyDrive Pro will work with SharePoint features such as "social networking, collaboration, search, metadata, workflow and compliance."

Many other improvements in SharePoint 2013 are described by Teper, including a "sites hub" for users to monitor their Web sites, as well as electronic discovery capabilities for administrators. A new "discovery center" provides a single pane for those monitoring compliance issues. Other notable changes are outlined in a Microsoft TechNet library article here.

Redmond magazine earlier offered an inside peak of what to expect in SharePoint '15,' which is the code name for SharePoint 2013. That article outlining features for IT pros can be read at this page.

Teper suggested that those who are testing the SharePoint 2013 preview use "the out-of-box application whenever possible." He didn't elaborate, but suggested that customization of SharePoint 2013 would just add unnecessary complexity.

Microsoft lists various training support resources for IT pros and developers who are testing SharePoint 2013 at this blog post by Juvonen. Test lab guides can be found here.

Exchange 2013 Features
Microsoft replaced the management console and control panel administrative tools that are seen in the current Exchange 2010 product with a new "Exchange administration center" in the Exchange 2013 preview. This administration center provides IT pros with a single console that will enable management support across hosted, on-premises or hybrid deployments of Exchange 2013, according to a Microsoft blog post.

Exchange 2013 supports a new "public folder" feature. This design eliminates the need for Microsoft's public folder database. A blog showing how to create public folders can be found here.

Offline access to Microsoft's Outlook Web App is supported by the Exchange 2013 preview. Microsoft changed the how Outlook connects, indicating that "all Outlook connectivity must take place using RPC over HTTPS (also known as Outlook Anywhere)."

Another limitation with the Exchange 2013 preview is that there will be "no coexistence with Exchange 2003." Organizations wanting to mix Exchange 2013 with their existing installed Exchange 2003 servers will be out of luck.

For a list of what is changing in Exchange 2013, see this Microsoft TechNet library article. Links to get the Exchange 2013 preview bits, as well as additional documentation on technical features, are available in this Microsoft blog post. Microsoft also developed a new simplified installer for Exchange 2013, which is illustrated in this blog.

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