Microsoft trolls for Office beta testers

Editions for Android and Windows 8 most likely candidates Redmond will preview

Microsoft today put out a call for commercial and consumer beta testers to put upcoming versions of Office through the wringer.

The announcement did not specify which editions of Office would be given early to testers, but most pundits assumed they would certainly include the suite on Android, possibly also the long-awaited touch-first productivity apps for Windows 8 and 8.1.

"The family of products include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Visio, Access, Publisher and Outlook applications, as well as the Exchange, SharePoint and Project server products and cloud services," Microsoft said in a short message on its Pre-Release Programs website.

The Verge reported on the announcement earlier Wednesday.

But while there were to be forms on the beta test website that customers could fill in to express interest, they were not available to Computerworld at 3 p.m. ET. Messages stating "This site is currently not available ... Please try again later" were displayed instead.

Thirty minutes later, the site had changed to simply display a message. "We are in the process of updating our submission site and expect it to be back online soon. We will be accepting applications throughout the next several weeks and hope you return later in the week to submit your interest," the site said.

Microsoft has said that it's working on native Office apps for both Android and Windows 8: The company confirmed the former this spring, but has been promising the latter since last October when then-CEO Steve Ballmer said engineers were developing a touch-first Office for Windows.

However, no one at Microsoft has publicly shared a release timeline for either edition.

Because Microsoft launched Office for iPad in March -- contrary to expectations that it would follow a touch-centric version for Windows 8 -- it's possible that Redmond will ship apps for Android before those for its own OS.

That would fit with current-CEO Satya Nadella's constant repetition of "cloud first, mobile first" as the description of Microsoft's strategy. Android tablets far outnumber those powered by Windows 8 or 8.1, although most experts believe that relatively few of the former are used for productivity tasks.

Microsoft had site trouble today but promised that customers could sign up for possible inclusionin a new Office beta test program. One likely candidate: a set of touch apps for Android.

Other Office editions could be on the beta slate, too, including one for OS X, which hasn't seen a new suite since October 2010. A successor to Office for Mac 2011 is long overdue, at least according to Microsoft's past release cadence.

Microsoft has dabbled with Android before. A year ago, the company launched Office Mobile for Android, a scaled-down version for smartphones that had to be tied to an active Office 365 subscription. In March 2014, Microsoft discarded the Office 365 requirement for consumers, setting the app free. Business customers, however, still had to subscribe to an Office 365 plan to use Office Mobile.

And three weeks ago, Microsoft shipped a preview of its Outlook Web App (OWA) for Android, fulfilling a promise made in March.

Whatever Microsoft eventually launches for Android and Windows 8 will most certainly come with the same freemium strings as Office for iPad, which can be used free of charge for viewing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, but demands an Office 365 subscription to create new documents or edit existing ones.

For consumers, the Office 365 Home and Office 365 Personal plans cost $100 and $70 a year, respectively. Businesses have a variety of programs to choose from that start at $150 per user per year and climb to $264 per user per year.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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