Microsoft Office Plans Are Confusing

Last week I was trying to subscribe to Microsoft Office. I expected to simply find an Office license that included everything I needed at a simple price. Instead, I found that Microsoft Office licenses are extremely complex, making it nearly impossible to get what it needs without overspending.

Trying to buy Office apps plunges you into a world of confusion

After Microsoft announced a new project management tool called Microsoft Planner in a blog that said it was “ ready to demo,” I decided to give it a try. It sounded great! I wanted to try. So which Microsoft Office plan do I need to get it? A Microsoft blog post on this subject states:

Over the next few weeks, Planner will be rolled out to all eligible Office 365 customers around the world. This includes subscription plans for Office 365 Enterprise E1 – E5, Business Essentials, Premium, and Education.

Immediately, we are confronted with several confusing plan names. Is Premium a plan for home or business users? How do I get an education package? In the end, I found this man page, which seemed to make sense here in the names, but it wasn’t very obvious. On my first try, I clicked a link in a blog post about Planner and then clicked View Plans and Pricing. This led me to this page where I was offered Office 365 Business, Business Premium, or Business Essentials. The blog post explains that Business Essentials (the cheapest option) includes a Planner, but the comparison page never actually mentions it. If I came here from anywhere else, including the Microsoft Planner landing page, I would have no idea if Business Essentials actually includes the application I want.

Almost every Office application has the same annoying licensing issues

I would be willing to chalk it up to an early adopter problem, but it is not. Most other Office applications have similar convoluted problems. For example, Outlook is one of the most widely used Office applications outside of Word and Excel, but it is not included in some versions of Office . If you’re looking for Outlook, you’ll first be redirected to, which has little to do with the desktop app of the same name and is more like Gmail . If you manage to find an Outlook landing page, you’ll be prompted to buy Office 365 from, but is free anyway.

OneNote offers a different confusion. Microsoft explains that OneNote is included with every version of Office for home, business, and students. Sounds great, except that the OneNote landing page says it’s free for ” all your devices .” So, is it free or do I need to buy Office to get it and do I need to pay more for mobile apps? In fact, while studying this article, I discovered that I have two completely different versions of OneNote on my computer right now. One is from the Windows Store and the other is part of an expired Office 365 subscription. The latter prompts me to renew my subscription to continue using it, but why would I want to if OneNote is free? What’s in the paid version and what’s not in the free version? This blog post sheds a little light on the differences , but it also states that the basic features of the paid version will eventually be added to the free version over time, so why pay at all? Microsoft doesn’t offer easy answers.

Even among the mainstream Office applications, determining exactly what you need can be confusing. Office Online offers free versions of Word , Excel, and Powerpoint , similar to how Google Docs works. The differences between these free apps and the ones you can install with Office 365 or Office 2016 are unclear. You can find articles here detailing the differences for Word , Excel, and Powerpoint . While they are refreshingly detailed, they are also very dense. If you don’t already know about a particular feature that you need, most people will have a hard time figuring out which version is for them .

After a ton of time and research, I eventually found what I needed and settled on an Office 365 subscription, but it disappointed me. Namely, I worked as a software salesperson in an electronics store a few years ago, and Office has always been the most challenging product for my clients. Most customers had no idea if they were buying the right version and opted for the larger and premium versions “just in case.” When you can’t figure out what you’re buying, you’re probably spending too much money.

Focus on one of these three office categories

Much of this confusion stems from Microsoft selling Office in different ways. Depending on what you want from Office, you have three main options:

  • Sign up for Office 365 to stay updated: This is the easiest and cheapest way (at least in advance) to get the Office apps you want. Office 365, Microsoft’s combo suite for online and offline productivity, offers a subscription that allows you to pay a monthly fee to install versions of some apps on any number of computers and install the ones you want offline on multiple devices at the same time. … For example, Office 365 Personal allows you to install Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote on one Mac or PC, and one Android or iOS tablet for $ 6.99 per month or $ 69 per year.
  • Buy Office 2016 straight away and stay on one version: this is the model most people are probably used to. Office 2016 is a one-time suite of Office applications from Microsoft that you can install right on your computer. For example, the 2016 Home and Student license costs $ 150 and includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote. If a new version comes out, you will have to pay again to update these apps. The plus is that the purchased versions can be used forever.
  • Use the free online versions of Office apps: Microsoft doesn’t make it easy to figure this out, but most Office apps these days have free online components that you can use without buying anything. You can find free versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote, and more here . For most people, this may be enough.

For your part, it’s best to ask yourself how you want to use Office. Do you prefer to use online tools and pay as little as possible? Stick to the free Office apps that you can find online. Do you want to install applications on your computer and don’t mind signing up? Get Office 365. Would you rather pay once for the version of the Office apps you’re familiar with and can keep forever? Buy Office 2016. Microsoft’s marketing and licensing framework can confuse you as to what you need, but you can usually simplify your needs to one of these three categories.

Use these resources to compare versions

Until Microsoft clears out their licenses, which they kind of do with Windows 10 , it will always be difficult to find the version of Office (or any of their software) that you need, includes the features you want, and doesn’t. It doesn’t make you pay for a bunch of bells and whistles that you don’t. However, here are some resources to help you make your decision:

  • Compare Office suites : This tool from Microsoft lets you quickly compare home, business, and student editions. Here you can find out if a particular plan includes applications such as Outlook or Publisher, and on how many computers you can install the applications on. Unfortunately, apart from these basic facts, it contains very little information.
  • Select Your Office : This link compares home and business plans at the same time. You can find links at the bottom of each plan with more details on each one. If you’re looking for a little-known feature, this is one of the best official resources.
  • Office 365 plan options : This comparison page details the differences in Office 365 plans. Here you can find some of the more obscure differences, such as support for Exchange, Skype for Business, and more.

None of these tools are perfect, but they are also quite difficult to find on Microsoft’s own sites without a dedicated Google search. Before buying an Office suite, you should probably check at least one of them to make sure you’re getting what you need without overspending.

Unfortunately, Office is so important that we have no choice but to sort out this tangled mess. The way Microsoft bundles apps together and can’t explain the differences between them makes it difficult to get what you need. It’s doable through research, but Microsoft needs to better help its customers find the best product for them, instead of making them obfuscate additional sales.


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