(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY With Windows 8 right around the corner (release date: Oct. 29), it was only a matter of time before we'd get to try the beta version of Office, and now it has arrived. You can now install and explore the "Customer Preview" version of Office 2013.
First things first: You might be confused by all the names Microsoft has attached to this new version of Office. Just once, I'd love to see Microsoft apply a modicum of common sense to product naming, but I'm always disappointed. The press is frequently using Office 15 to identify the new office suite. That's Microsoft's internal product naming convention (Office 2010 was also known as Office 14, and Office 2007 was Office 12 -- they skipped Office 13). The suite is apparently officially named Office 2013, but the customer preview site also refers to it as Office 365, a nod to the deeply social and cloud-connected aspects of the new product.
You can install Office 2013 and try it out for yourself by visiting the customer preview site -- but only if you are using either Windows 7 or a preview version of Windows 8. Office 2013 will not run on any other versions of Windows -- even Windows Vista is being left in the dust. You'll need a Windows Live account to install and use this version of Office. If you don't already have one, you can get it when you try to sign up for Office.
There are five different trial versions available: Home, Small Business (intended for up to 10 users), ProPlus, Enterprise, and Servers.
Office 2013 looks dramatically different than previous versions of Office: It has a flat, minimalist design, sort of like a Metro app for Windows 8, but it is a genuine desktop application. Microsoft has integrated Skype, SkyDrive, and even the social service Yammer into the programs, and made the entire suite much more touch friendly, so you can conceivably use it on the desktop like always, or control it effectively on a touch-only tablet as well. I haven't had a chance to size up the touch-ability of Office 2013 yet, so I can't say how well that aspect of it works.
Interested? Give it a go. Office 2013 runs alongside your existing Office installation, so you don't have to sacrifice anything to try it out. After you install Office, why don't you head down to the comments and tell us what you think?