Microsoft has launched Office 2013, the new version of its software suite.
Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook have been redesigned to work better with touch-screen-controlled computers.
Microsoft also integrate the firm’s Skype video chat facility. Users can add further functions via a new app store.
The programs account for a major part of Microsoft’s earnings. The firm hopes to keep users loyal by offering more powerful features than cheaper online alternatives.
In the last year the firm’s Business Division, which creates the software, generated just under $24 billion, roughly a third of the firm’s revenue.
However, a 4% dip in Microsoft’s most recent quarterly profits was linked to the fact that many consumers had held off buying the older version of the software ahead of the revamp.
If it proves a success it might also drive sales of new Windows 8 or Windows RT-powered computers, which can take advantage of the applications’ improved touch controls.
Studies suggest users are switching to the systems at a slower rate than they adopted Windows 7 and Windows Vista.
Microsoft confounded rumors by not releasing a version of the Office software for Apple’s iPad tablets. It has also decided not to offer the products on Android devices.
The retooled software offers a touch mode that makes several of its controls bigger so they are more finger-friendly as well as including the ability to swipe and pinch-and-zoom documents. Files can also be viewed in “read mode”, which displays them in a format that particularly suits tablets.
By default, files are saved to the firm’s SkyDrive online cloud storage facility, although users can choose to save them on their hard drive if they wish.
Microsoft has launched Office 2013, the new version of its software suite
Additional plug-ins are available from a new Office Store. These include the ability to add Twitter functionality to the Outlook email tool and to consult Encyclopaedia Britannica articles from within Word.
Many of these are free, although US firm Sensei Project Solutions is among the first to charge a fee, for its “task analyzer”, which is designed to identify problems or missing information in users’ documents.
Consumers can buy the suite for use on one PC for $140, but Microsoft appears to favor a subscription deal for its Office 365 Home Premium edition, which is the focus of the promotional activity on its site.
This charges $100 for one year’s access on up to five PCs or Macs and bundles in 60 minutes of Skype calls a month as well as more SkyDrive storage.
The prices mark a discount on the fees the company used to charge for Office, reflecting the competition it faces from the growing popularity of cheap and free alternative applications offered by Google, Zoho, Apache OpenOffice and others.
A version of the online Office 365 apps for businesses is due for release on February 27.
Microsoft is under fresh pressure to disclose information about how confidential its Skype user data is.
Reporters Without Borders, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 43 other campaign groups have signed a letter asking Microsoft to reveal details about what information is stored and government efforts to access it.
Google, Twitter and others already provide such transparency reports.
Microsoft is to consider the request.
“We are reviewing the letter,” a spokeswoman said.
“Microsoft has an ongoing commitment to collaborate with advocates, industry partners and 2,112 governments worldwide to develop solutions and promote effective public policies that help protect people’s online safety and privacy.”
More than 600 million people use Skype to make voice and video calls and send text and audio messages. Microsoft is currently in the process of migrating users from its Windows Live Messenger product to the service.
The US firm took control of Skype in 2011. Since then, the letter alleges, it has issued “persistently unclear and confusing” details about how confidential conversations on the service were.
Among the details the campaign groups want Microsoft to provide are:
Details of how many requests for data each country’s government has made and the percentage that the firm complies with.
Information about exactly what information Microsoft keeps itself.
The firm’s own analysis about the current ability of third-parties to intercept conversations.
The policy its staff has for dealing with disclosure requests.
Microsoft is under fresh pressure to disclose information about how confidential its Skype user data is
Skype last commented in detail about privacy issues in a blog post last July.
It said that Skype-to-Skype calls between two participants did not flow through its data centres meaning it would not have access to the video or audio.
It also noted that calls made between two devices using its software would be encrypted – limiting the ability of anyone to make sense of the data even if they could listen in.
However, Microsoft acknowledged that group calls using more than two computers did pass through its servers which were used to “aggregate the media streams”, and that text-based messages were also stored on its computers for up to 30 days in order to make sure they were synchronized across users’ various devices.
“If a law enforcement entity follows the appropriate procedures and we are asked to access messages stored temporarily on our servers, we will do so,” it added.
Microsoft also noted that calls which linked Skype to mobile or landline telephone networks would flow through the relevant networks’ equipment, potentially offering an opportunity to tap in.
Furthermore it recognized that a China-only version of its service involved certain chats being stored and uploaded to the local authorities in compliance with the country’s laws.
Beyond China, several governments have signaled they want to have access to Skype data.
The UK’s draft Communications Data Bill suggests internet service providers retain information about their subscribers use of Skype and other internet communications tools.
The Cnet news site reported last year that the FBI had drafted an amendment to US law which would require Microsoft and other net chat tool providers to create surveillance backdoors in their products.
More recently the netzpolitik.org blog published what it said was a leaked document from Germany’s government stating that its Federal Criminal Police Office was working on surveillance software to allow it to track Skype and other data communications. It said the agency hoped to have it ready by 2014.
An expenditure report by the country’s Ministry of Home Affairs suggests the local authorities have already spent money to try to monitor Skype using third-party software.
Microsoft is switching off its Windows Live Messenger service on March 15.
On March 15 Messenger log-ins will no longer work and users must turn to Skype, said Microsoft in an email sent to all Messenger users.
The email also encouraged users to update to Skype and familiarize themselves with the service before the switch-off.
The service switch is a consequence of Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype in October 2011 for $8.5 billion.
In November 2012, Microsoft announced that it was switching off Live Messenger in early 2013 but gave no firm date. At the same time, Microsoft made it possible for Messenger users to talk to and swap messages with contacts via Skype.
Microsoft is switching off its Windows Live Messenger service on March 15
To help people migrate before March 15, Microsoft has added an upgrade button to its desktop Messenger that when clicked uninstalls Messenger and puts Skype in its place.
Until the switch-off date Messenger would work as it always did, said Microsoft.
The Windows Live Messenger instant messaging program was known as MSN Messenger when it first launched in 1999. The service is believed to be used by about 300 million people every month.
China is the only nation in which Messenger will keep operating, because it is run under licence there.
Microsoft has announced it intends to “retire” its instant message chat tool Windows Live Messenger (WLM) and replace it with Skype’s messaging tool.
The news comes 18 months after the software giant announced it was paying $8.5 billion for the communications software developer.
Microsoft said WLM would be turned off by March 2013 worldwide, with the exception of China.
It reflects the firm’s determination to focus its efforts on Skype.
WLM launched in 1999 when it was known as MSN Messenger. Over time, photo delivery, video calls and games were added to the package’s text-based messages.
In 2009, the firm said it had 330 million active users.
According to internet analysis firm Comscore, WLM still had more than double the number of Skype’s instant messenger facility at the start of this year and was second only in popularity to Yahoo Messenger.
But the report suggested WLM’s US audience had fallen to 8.3 million unique users, representing a 48% drop year-on-year. By contrast, the number of people using Skype to instant message each other grew over the period.
Microsoft intends to close its instant message chat tool Windows Live Messenger and replaces it with Skype’s messaging tool
“When a company has competing products that can result in cannibalization it’s often better to focus on a single one,” said Brian Blau from the consultancy Gartner.
“Skype’s top-up services offer the chance to monetize its users and Microsoft is also looking towards opportunities in the living room.
“Messenger doesn’t seem like an appropriate communications platform for TVs or the firm’s Xbox console – but Skype does.”
He also noted that the firm had opted to integrate Skype into its new Windows Phone 8 smartphone software, eclipsing the effort to integrate WLM into the message threads of the operating system’ previous version.
To ease the changeover, Microsoft is offering a tool to migrate WLM messenger contacts over.
The risk is that the move encourages users to switch instead to rival platforms such as WhatsApp Messenger, AIM or Google Talk.
But Microsoft is at least partially protected by its tie-up with Facebook last year. Skype video calls are now offered as an extra to the social network’s own instant messaging tool.
Microsoft is overhauling its free webmail service, dropping the Hotmail brand it has used since acquiring the product in 1998, and adopting the name Outlook.com.
The revamped service will help sort messages as they arrive and allow users to make internet calls on Skype.
It said the move would help tackle the problem of “cluttered” inboxes.
The action may also be designed to win over users of Google’s rival Gmail service.
Microsoft said that in many cases email had become a “chore” because its users accounts had become “overloaded” with material.
Its solution is to automatically sort messages into different areas to distinguish between emails from contacts, newsletters, package delivery notices, social network posts and other identifiers determined by the account holder.
Microsoft is overhauling its free webmail service, dropping the Hotmail brand, and adopting the name Outlook.com
In addition it is taking steps to link the Outlook account with other services the user might have subscribed to.
“We are giving you the first email service that is connected to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google, and soon, Skype, to bring relevant context and communications to your email,” the firm’s Chris Jones said on its blog.
“In the Outlook.com inbox, your personal email comes alive with photos of your friends, recent status updates and tweets that your friend has shared with you, the ability to chat and video call – all powered by an always up-to-date contact list that is connected to your social networks.”
In what may be perceived as a dig at Google, Chris Jones added that the firm would not scan email content or attachments in order to sell the information to advertisers or others.
He also announced that web versions of the firms Office apps were built-in, potentially helping it counter competition from other web-based application suits such as Google Docs and Zoho Docs.
Outlook.com also links up with Microsoft’s Skydrive cloud storage, allowing users to send photos and other documents via the service to avoid the risk of going over their attachment size limit.
This could pose a threat to the rival Google Drive service as well as Dropbox, Sugarsync and others.
Chris Jones said the firm had built a “brand new service from the ground up”. But Matt Cain, an analyst at the tech consultants Gartner, played down the suggestion of a major leap forwards.
“Outlook.com represents reverse-consumerisation – taking a ubiquitous business tool and recrafting it for the consumer market,” he said.
“There really is no new technology here – the filtering tools have been around for some time as well as the social network integration.
“What is new is the cleaned up user interface, and the marketing spin, and the tight integration with office web apps and Skydrive, and the forthcoming integration with Skype.”
Microsoft is offering the service in a “preview” mode for the time being and has not announced an official release date. While it advises users to upgrade, Hotmail subscribers can stick with the old system if they wish – at least for now.
Skype, the Microsoft’s online message, phone and video chat service, has denied making changes to its system “in order to provide law officers greater access” to its members’ conversations.
It follows reports suggesting infrastructure upgrades had made it easier to hand on users’ chat data.
Skype has now posted a blog saying the changes were made solely to improve user experience and reliability.
But it added it would pass on messages to law enforcement when “appropriate”.
Concern about Microsoft’s intentions were first raised over a year ago after the Conceivablytech blog revealed the firm had filed a US patent for Legal Intercept – a technology “capable of silently copying the communication between at least two entities” on Voip (voice over internet protocol) calls.
It specifically made reference to “Skype and Skype-like applications” despite being filed in 2009, 17 months before Microsoft paid $8.5 billion to take over the service.
Skype has denied making changes to its system "in order to provide law officers greater access" to its members' conversations
In May 2012 the issue was revived after security researcher Kostya Kortchinsky blogged that the firm had changed its “supernode” policy.
While in the past Skype had relied on users with high-spec systems to help its members’ computers locate each other when a call was made, the firm had now switched to a system in which all such connections were made using in-house servers.
This prompted posts on some blogs linking the move to the earlier surveillance patent which were then followed up by the news site Extreme Tech.
Reports in the mainstream media including articles by Forbes, and The Washington Post followed.
The latter said industry and government officials had told it that Skype “has expanded its co-operation with law enforcement authorities to make online chats and other user information available to police”.
It said its sources had spoken to it “on the condition of anonymity”.
Skype’s blog post said it was “false” to believe the changes it had made allowed it to monitor and record audio and video calls. It said that while its servers helped members locate each other and maintain quality, the actual call data usually bypassed its equipment going directly from one users’ equipment to another.
“Skype to Skype calls do not flow though our data centres and the <<supernodes>> are not involved in passing media (audio or video) between Skype clients,” wrote Mark Gillett, the firm’s chief development and operations officer.
But he added that group calls including more than two parties were an exception, “where a server aggregates the media streams (video) from multiple clients and routes this to clients that might not otherwise have enough bandwidth to establish connections to all our partners”.
The Washington Post article had focused on written instant messages, rather than video/audio calls.
Mark Gillett denied Skype’s moves had been designed to “facilitate law enforcement” but he did acknowledge the company would give the authorities access to messages if “a law enforcement entity follows the appropriate procedures” and the procedure was “technically feasible”.
His post suggested it would be possible to pass on messages in some instances.
“In order to provide for the delivery and synchronization of instant messages across multiple devices, and in order to manage the delivery of messages between clients situated behind some firewalls which prevent direct connections between clients, some messages are stored temporarily on our (Skype/Microsoft) servers for immediate or later delivery to a user,” he wrote.
Yasmin Chaudhry, a young mother from Norway, drowned her baby daughter in a bucket while her boyfriend watched live on Skype.
Yasmin Chaudhry, 26, killed the one-year-old girl by plunging her into a bucket of water during a 3:00 a.m. Skype video call with her British partner.
The mother said she had just wanted to discipline her baby for waking up and “disobeying her”.
Yasmin Chaudhry called an ambulance and initially told paramedics that the baby had fallen into the bucket by accident.
The little girl was unconscious when the paramedics arrived and was pronounced dead the next day, in October 2010.
Yasmin Chaudhry was initially arrested on suspicion of negligence because of inconsistencies in the stories she gave to police and the paramedics, but is now facing a preliminary charge of murder.
“This has been a long investigation and she eventually admitted it to us in October 2011,” said Norwegian police prosecutor Kristin Rusdal.
“She said it was done to discipline the child. She had been holding her under water.
“She had discussed the discipline with this friend, with whom she had a relationship. They met online and had met in person only once.”
Yasmin Chaudhry claimed that her boyfriend – who is not the child’s father – told her to do it.
Both of them deny wanting to kill the baby.
The British man has not yet been named because his name does not appear in any of the court documents published in Norway.
Kristin Rusdal confirmed a preliminary murder charge had been filed against the British man and said police were discussing extradition.
Officers from Oslo flew to UK just before Christmas to question the boyfriend with the help of Scotland Yard.
“We could issue a formal request to the British authorities to see if they wan to investigate the case, but because it is so closely tied to our investigation we would like to see them together,” said Kristin Rusdal.
Yasmin Chaudhry’s five-year-old son was taken into care following the horrific episode in October 2010.
Yesterday, Yasmin Chaudhry was remanded until February 4.
The baby’s father now lives in Pakistan after splitting with the mother.
Yasmin Chaudhry’s lawyer said: “He is, of course, very shocked.”