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Final Office 2013 for ARM may not ship until January

Microsoft confirms some features removed

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Microsoft has revealed some more details about the version of Office 2013 for ARM-powered devices running Windows RT, including the fact that some customers will have to wait until January 2013 to get their hands on the final code.

In a post to the Office Next blog on Thursday, Microsoft reps explained that the version of Office Home & Student 2013 RT that will ship when Windows RT hits General Availability status will indeed be only a preview version, as El Reg previously reported.

The software giant further confirmed that all customers would eventually receive an upgrade to the final version of the suite, but added something we didn't know: that the upgrade will be delivered automatically via Windows Update at no cost.

Exactly when customers will receive the update seems to depend mostly on their language. Microsoft says it will start shipping the first updates in "early November", with subsequent updates for other languages rolling out through January. The full schedule won't be announced until October 26, but presumably an English-language update will be among the early priorities.

What we still don't know, though, is exactly what "preview version" means when it comes to Office 2013 RT. It could simply mean that the applications are buggy and crash-prone, or it could mean that the suite will ship with certain features disabled, or even entire Office components missing.

Microsoft did confirm something else we had suspected, however, which is that even when the final version of Office 2013 RT ships, it won't be 100 per cent feature compatible with Office 2013 for desktop Windows.

For starters, it definitely won't ship with a version of Outlook. And in fact, the blog post says, "Windows RT does not support Outlook or other desktop mail applications." The only way to check your email in the touch-centric OS will be to use a Windows Store app, such as the mail app that comes bundled with Windows RT.

What the Office 2013 RT suite will include are versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote compiled for ARM. But although these applications are "built from the same code base as the other versions of Office," a number of features have been rejiggered or outright disabled in the ARM-processor versions.

Screenshots comparing Office 2013 and Office 2013RT

Word 2013 for desktop on the left, Word 2013 RT on the right. Can you spot the difference? (click to enlarge)

Some of these changes are designed to make the applications more friendly to touch-based UIs or to improve battery life. For example, Microsoft says it has reduced the amount of power the Office applications consume when the user is idle by 95 per cent.

Microsoft also says it expects to see many Windows RT devices using cellular data modems for wireless connectivity, and to that end it has designed the Office RT apps to detect when a customer is using a metered-rate data plan and throttle their network usage accordingly.

In some cases, features were dropped from Office RT because they were legacy capabilities that would weigh down the suite with unnecessary bloat. For example, playback support for some older media formats was dropped from PowerPoint.

But other omissions are less easy to explain. The fact that the Office RT apps won't support ActiveX controls is understandable – existing controls are all built for Intel architectures anyway, and won't run on ARM-based systems. But Microsoft's decision to drop support for its own Visual Basic for Applications macro language leaves Redmond's new Apps for Office as the only way to script the suite, and so far they're less than an ideal substitute.

Also missing from Office RT will be the ability to create Data Models in Excel (although PivotTables, QueryTables, and Pivot Charts will still work), and the ability to record narrations in PowerPoint.

OneNote 2013 RT will lose a number of features, including the ability to search embedded audio and video files and to import from an attached scanner. Neither will it allow users to record audio or video notes (one of the note-taking app's most beloved features).

It may be that many of these features are simply impractical for an underpowered device based on an ARM processor, but losing them seems like a shame, nonetheless.

On the other hand, the fact that Microsoft's Surface tablets and other Windows RT-powered devices will ship with a full-fledged office productivity suite could be a major selling point, even if the ARM versions don't include every feature of their Intel-based cousins. Most consumer Windows 7 PCs shipping today only include the limited, Starter version of Office, if they bundle it at all.

Chances are most vendors will bundle Office with their Windows RT hardware, too. Microsoft hasn't said whether there will be a "Professional" version of Office RT, but it has confirmed that Office Home & Student 2013 RT will not be sold as a standalone product.

If that's true for all the versions of Office RT that eventually ship, then not bundling it would effectively be telling customers "you cannot run proper office apps on this device" – and what manufacturer would want to risk that? ®

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