Microsoft prepares 'Albany' to compete with Google Docs

Microsoft is planning a new package of low-end productivity software and services through a secretive project, code-named Albany.

Facing pressure from hosted productivity suites such as Google Docs and Google Apps, Microsoft is planning a new package of low-end productivity software and hosted services through a secretive project code-named Albany.

Project Albany puts together a combination of Office, Office Live Workspaces, Windows Live OneCare and the Windows Live suite of services in one package that eventually is expected to be available in retail outlets such as Best Buy, sources familiar with the company's plans said Wednesday.

The sources, who asked not to be named, said Microsoft is asking select testers to try out the Project Albany beta, but is requiring them to sign a non-disclosure agreement just to participate in the test. The main focus of the initial beta is to test the unified installer for the package, they said.

Office is Microsoft's enormously successful productivity suite, and it's unclear how much of that product will make it into Albany. Because of its price points and functionality, Office Home and Student 2007, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, is the most likely candidate for inclusion in the new suite, which is expected to be fairly low-cost. Office Home and Student 2007 retails for US$149.95, about $250 less than Office Standard 2007 -- which in addition to Word, Excel and PowerPoint also includes Outlook and has a list price of US$399.95.

Other products that are expected to be a part of Project Albany are hosted services Microsoft has developed over the last few years. Office Live Workspaces is Microsoft's hosted service for storing and sharing documents online, while Windows Live OneCare is a security service that includes firewall and antivirus protection. Windows Live services include hosted e-mail, search, photo-sharing and other services; it is also not certain at this time which of these services will be a part of Albany.

Through its public relations firm Wednesday, Microsoft confirmed that it sent out beta invitations for a product code-named Albany, but declined to share additional details.

Because of its history of selling packaged software, Microsoft is adopting a software-plus-services approach to providing applications online to compete with Google's free and low-cost hosted services such as Google Docs and Apps, which are beginning to encroach on Microsoft's historical packaged-software territory. Other companies such as IBM also offer free productivity applications, although IBM's Symphony suite is not a hosted service.

Microsoft executives have said that the company eventually will offer a hosted version of Office, even as the various packaged versions of Office continue to be successful in the consumer and business markets. With Albany, the company could be trying to create a hybrid product that wouldn't cannibalize its software business even as it moves Microsoft's services strategy forward.

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