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Microsoft confirms testing of ‘Albany’ low-cost Office suite

Redmond's answer to Google Docs is now in public testing

Microsoft on Friday confirmed it is planning to release a subscription-based “value box” of low-end productivity software code-named Albany, and has sent an early version of the product to thousands of beta participants for private testing.

News surfaced last month that Microsoft was planning the suite — a combination of Office Home and Student 2007; Office Live Workspaces; Windows Live Mail, Messenger and Photos client software; and Windows Live OneCare — to compete with Google Docs and other free or low-cost productivity suites available in the consumer market. Microsoft late last month sent out select invitations to test Albany, asking people to sign nondisclosure agreements just to sign up for the test, sources close to the company said at the time.

However, Microsoft Product Manager Bryson Gordon said that Albany — which the company internally had called a “value box” of software — isn’t simply a productivity play. “The free applications online address one portion of this,” he said.

Albany goes beyond that and provides what consumers have told Microsoft are the “essential” products they use on a computer, Gordon said. “It extends both into the security value proposition and extends into the category of helping people connect and share with others,” he said.

In addition to Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications found in Office, a plug-in for Office Live Workspaces in Albany will give customers the ability to store and share documents online from directly within the Office interface. Albany also covers basic PC security needs with Windows Live OneCare, Microsoft’s service that includes firewall and antivirus protection, as well as basic consumer e-mail, instant-messaging and photo-sharing needs with the Windows Live software.

Albany suggests that Microsoft recognizes it must differentiate Office from less costly or even free software such as Google Docs or IBM’s Symphony. These suites threaten to commiditize the consumer market for productivity software, where low-end versions of Office, for now, remain prevalent.