Microsoft Office 2013 is one step closer to the desktop. Microsoft on Thursday reached a new milestone in the productivity suite's development: the engineering team signed off on the Release to Manufacturing, or RTM, build.

Practically speaking, that means the coding and testing phase of the software development is done. Microsoft is now focused on releasing the new Office via multiple distribution channels to its consumer and business customers.

"This is the most ambitious release of Office we've ever done. It spans the full family of Office applications, servers and cloud services," said Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Office Division. "The new Office has a fresh, touch-friendly design that works beautifully on Windows 8 and unlocks modern scenarios in social, reading, note-taking, meetings and communications."

Strong Sense of Integration

Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group, told us Microsoft hedged with Office 2013 much like they hedged with prior editions of Office. Office 2013, he noted, is designed to bridge between Windows 7 and Windows 8.

"With all the push for Metro applications, Office stands as the outlier because it's not a Windows 8 application," Enderle said. "Having said that, this version is significantly improved, mostly along the lines of efficiency and productivity. The changes [I see], particularly in Outlook, because that's what I've been using most, are pretty impressive in the way it organizes messages and helps you get through an ever-overcrowded e-mail inbox much more efficiently."

Across the board, Enderle said Office 2013 feels like a much sleeker and better product. He expects it to be remembered as the best in its series in the Office family. The next version of Office, he said, will be a Windows 8 app with a new user experience.

Office 2013 Timelines

Software industry reviewers haven't yet offered their full view of the latest iteration. The software should hit store shelves sometime in the first quarter of 2013, though the exact date is not known.

If you need to buy Office after Oct. 19 but before the new version hits the market, Microsoft will give Office 2010 purchases a free copy of Office 2013 when it officially debuts. Customers can also see a preview version of the new Office on Windows RT devices, beginning with the Windows 8 launch on Oct. 26.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will begin rolling out new capabilities to Office 365 Enterprise customers in its next service update, starting in November through general availability. Volume Licensing customers with Software Assurance can download the Office 2013 applications as well as other Office products including SharePoint 2013, Lync 2013 and Exchange 2013 through the Volume Licensing Service Center by mid-November. And IT professionals and developers can download the final version via their TechNet or MSDN subscriptions by mid-November.