Microsoft is working on a package of software and online services that might be exactly right for students and home computer users.

Although Vista includes important features out of the box, it does not include Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. That’s surprising to many people. (Dell will preinstall Office if you remember to check the box, but all the other manufacturers leave it off to keep the computer sale price down.) I talk to a lot of people about why they have to make an unexpected trip to Costco or Office Depot to buy a copy of Office.

The computer manufacturer may include security software but all too often it’s a bloated suite from whatever vendor paid the most to be included, or it’s only a trial version.

Similarly, most people have a poor experience with badly designed software for editing and sharing photos that comes preinstalled with their new computer or installed along with the driver for a new printer or camera.

These are not deep mysteries. Any technically adept person is able to jump in and clean things up! Uninstall the crap. Sign up for online services – lots of people have favorites of the hundreds available. Use Google Docs or OpenOffice for free or buy a copy of Office 2007 Home & Student Edition.

The package from Microsoft isn’t aimed at those people.

Instead, Microsoft will be packaging up a collection that’s good enough for people who want the choices to be made for them and presented in a neat, easy-to-use package. And Microsoft will be experimenting with selling the package as a cheap monthly subscription instead of an expensive box at Best Buy. (Microsoft sees subscriptions as an inevitable shift in the long run but it’s had trouble figuring out how to jump in without cannibalizing its current license fees.)

The “software plus service” bundle is code-named “Albany” during testing. Let’s fantasize and assume that Microsoft delivers a well-designed integrated experience. Here’s the way it will go sometime this fall.

  • If you don’t have one, you’ll get a free Windows Live ID.
  • You’ll agree to pay a monthly fee – not yet determined but probably $10-15/month.
  • A single installer will download and install these programs on your new computer, and set up access to their online components:
    • Microsoft Office 2007 Home And Student – Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote
    • Windows Live Office Workplace – online file storage and sharing for Office files, integrated with the Office programs, as easy as clicking a button; files can then be viewed and retrieved from any computer
    • Windows Live OneCare – easy-to-understand program for antivirus, spyware protection, firewall management, backups, printer sharing, and system maintenance
    • Windows Live Photo Gallery – the easiest and best-designed program for working with the photos on your computer and sharing them online
    • Windows Live Mail – full-featured and safe mail program, better than Outlook for home users, easy to integrate with Hotmail so mail can be viewed from anywhere
    • Windows Live Messenger

The programs would then all be updated automatically.

There’s nothing new about the package except the integration and the subscription pricing. Most of those components are free; Office 2007 Home & Student is about $140 and Live OneCare is $49.99 or less, so this is under two hundred dollars of software.

But the integrated experience is everything! If I’ve learned anything over the last ten years, it’s that many people don’t want to think about their computers. They want to sit down and do stuff! If this package was installed on a nice cleaned-up computer, people would be able to do stuff with a minimum of fuss. I think it’s a winner.

Here’s an article about Microsoft’s official acknowledgement that this package would enter beta testing soon, leading to a final release sometime this fall.

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