Microsoft made its long-awaited move to package the hosted version of Office with the hosted versions of Lync, SharePoint and Exchange with the unveiling on Tuesday of Office 365.
Office 365, scheduled to ship next year, is now available in limited beta form in 13 countries and regions and includes Office Web Apps, Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online.
Office 365 for companies with fewer than 25 employees will cost US$6 per user per month. For larger organizations, Microsoft will offer additional options, including the first time Office Professional Plus on a subscription basis for $24 per user per month.
The beta program will be expanded progressively beyond the initial several thousand companies testing it.
Later, Office 365 will also include Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, and an Office 365 version for educational institution will also be released next year.
It's not clear whether Office 365 will replace the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS), which includes the hosted versions of Exchange and SharePoint but not Office Web Apps.
At first glance, Office 365 seems a stronger competitor to hosted rival communication and collaboration suites like Google Apps that have in recent years put significant competitive pressure on Microsoft.
At a press event, Microsoft officials stressed that Office 365 is Microsoft's strongest statement yet that it believes the cloud-based software delivery model is the future for its products.
Microsoft customers are no longer asking whether they should move their on-premise software to the cloud, but when and how, said Kurt DelBene, president of the Microsoft Office Division.
"We're at a unique pivot point in the adoption of cloud services," he said.
(More to follow.)