Programs including PowerPoint, Outlook, Word, Excel, and OneNote aren’t sexy. But since Office is, for better or worse, the de facto standard for business, the update unveiled today is sure to attract a lot of attention. It’s “the most ambitious release of Microsoft Office that we’ve ever done,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says. While he didn’t mention Google Apps — the free, rival collection of writing, presentation, spreadsheet, social networking, and communications services already based in the cloud — they were clearly in Microsoft’s sights. There’s something else he didn’t mention: price and availability for the three versions (Office 365 Home Premium, Office 365 Small Business Premium and Office 365 ProPlus). They’ll be disclosed in the fall. “We have a lot of work to do to get the cost down,” Ballmer says, but he says the applications work together in a way that is “magical.”

One of the biggest selling points is that the new Office will enable users to continue working on documents and projects without moving files when they switch locations or devices. Applications also will be tablet and smartphone friendly; people can use their fingers to input data as well as swipe, pinch, and zoom images on touchscreens.

Microsoft Word will have a “reading mode” that resizes documents for different devices. Tablet and smartphone users can comment in documents, embed videos, and insert images — the text will wrap around them as they’re dragged to different locations or resized. People making presentations with PowerPoint can have a separate view on their screen to they can see the next slide, notes, and clock with a timer. The company says that Outlook will be simpler to use, and open for developers who want to design their own cloud-based plug-in apps. The company demonstrated ones that are already familiar on Google: Outlook can recognize an address in an email and come up with a map, or an appointment that can go directly to the calendar. Microsoft also says that users will find it easier to use Excel spreadsheets: For example, when you put some information into two or more cells in a column, a feature called “Flash Fill” will guess what you’re looking for and complete the insertion for the remaining cells. A preview of the new Office is available here.

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