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Microsoft Office shines online

I’m not what you’d call a “latest and greatest” junkie, so I still use Microsoft Corp.’s 10-year-old Office 2003 software. I refused to spend money on Office 2007, or Office 2010, or the brand-new Office 2013.

But now here comes Microsoft with a different kind of office productivity suite, bearing a different set of digits. It’s Office 365, a name that makes sense because Microsoft expects you to pay for it every day, for the rest of your life. And the funny thing is, you might just want to. With its sophisticated features and skillful integration with the Internet, Office 365 is a refreshing rethink of the traditional office suite.

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Instead of paying the flat ­Office 2013 price of $140 and up, you buy ­Office 365 as a subscription service — $99.99 a year or $9.99 a month.

Yes, Microsoft is trying to ­attach an umbilical cord to your checking account. Still, it’s not a bad value. For instance, perhaps the most important Office feature is the e-mail and calendar program Outlook. But the cheapest version of Office that includes Outlook costs $220. By contrast, Office 365 comes with the full tool kit — Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, and the database program Access.

Better yet, your spouse and the kids can get full access to all these goodies. The subscription entitles you to install Office on up to five machines, making it a decent deal if you live in a houseful of computers. The software is compatible with Windows computers and tablets, of course, but also with ­Apple Inc.’s Macintosh ­machines. Mac users won’t get the latest Office 2013 features yet, but they will get a free upgrade when they do become available.

Microsoft has thrown in another benefit — 60 minutes of free international phone calls every month, through the company’s Skype Internet phone service. The promotion covers about 40 countries, but Congo is not included. My wife, formerly of Kinshasa, won’t be pleased.

Hooking up to Office 365 also connects you to Microsoft’s cloud storage service SkyDrive. Anybody can sign up for a free SkyDrive account and get a 7-gigabyte online data stash. But Office 365 users get an extra 20 gigs, and a good reason to use them. When you create a new Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation, you can save it on your ­local computer or in SkyDrive. Now you can easily share the file with anybody else, or access it yourself when you’re on the road. Users can edit these documents, even if they’re not Office 365 subscribers.

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Back in 2010, Microsoft created Office Web Apps, a free online product that lets you edit Office files from inside a browser. Microsoft has now taken the concept a giant step further, with Office on Demand. An ­Office 365 subscriber can fire up any computer running Windows 7 or Windows 8, and run his full set of Office apps. Actually, the software is running on a remote server. But to the user, it feels like everything is happening locally.

I’ve been using Google Inc.’s free cloud-based Google Docs for a couple of years now, and while it’s adequate, the software is skimpy on advanced features and occasionally buggy. Office on Demand gives you the complete array of Office 2013 features, and its polish and good performance make it a product worth paying for.

Besides, Office 365 has a bunch of nice upgrades, both large and small. Outlook now posts the latest weather news at the top of your calendar page. You can connect it to Facebook and LinkedIn, so it’s easy to check the latest postings of people in your address book. You can now convert PDF files into Word format, then go in and edit them. You can insert online videos and play them while still inside the document.

I also like Read Mode, a handy Word feature that instantly fills the screen with whatever document you’re reading, while hiding the toolbars and other junk. Unlike many, I love reading on a computer, but dislike all the onscreen clutter. Now I can hide it all with a click. Beautiful.

None of these upgrades are huge; they’re certainly not enough to justify buying a costly new office suite. Yet with sales of its Windows 8 operating system sputtering, Microsoft must find a way to get users of Office 2003 and 2007 and 2010 to purchase their latest and greatest. With its excellent Internet integration, Office 365 may be exactly what Microsoft and the rest of us need.

Details: Office 365 Home Premium by Microsoft Corp.

$99.99 per year or $9.99 per month at office.microsoft.com.

Full-featured version of the new Office 2013 suite sold on a subscription basis.

One subscription covers up to five devices; runs on Windows PCs and tablets and Mac computers.

Files stored on Microsoft’s SkyDrive Internet storage network for quick global access; customers get up to 20 gigabytes of storage at no extra charge

Office on Demand feature provides full access to Office software through any Internet-connected computer running Windows 7 or 8.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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