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Microsoft 365 or Office 2021?

Explore differences and similarities between Microsoft 365 and desktop versions of Microsoft Office. The programs may appear similar, but there's a big difference.


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Product/Version: PowerPoint

OS: Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X



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Microsoft 365 was previously known as Office 365, and this is largely true. However, Office 365 is not dead and nowadays both brands, Microsoft 365 and Ofice 365 exist. We discuss these brands in more detail in our Microsoft 365 Versions page.

However, you may have also heard about their other different, but still similar product offerings such as Microsoft Office 2021, Office 2019, or other versions for the desktop, for both Windows and Mac. Are desktop versions the same as Microsoft 365? Well, there is no straight yes or no answer! But it does matter because many people can’t understand where the distinctions are. Let's first find out what’s confusing with all this terminology:

1. Microsoft 365

Is Microsoft 365 the name of a web site? Or is it also a subscription-based product? If it is a subscription, is it for using online applications? Or does the subscription allow you to install and run standalone Office apps that can be run on your desktop machines? Or even phones and tablets? Or is this some online storage stuff that is called a cloud these days? Or is Microsoft 365 all of these?

2. Microsoft Office for Windows

This seems less complicated. Isn’t this the desktop version of Microsoft's Office suite that includes familiar programs such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc? Then why do you see Microsoft 365 or Office 365 mentioned everywhere on Microsoft's web site—even on the pages for Microsoft Office? Is there a connection?

3. Microsoft Office for Mac

Yes, this is the Mac version of Office, but the Office for Mac pages on Microsoft’s site contain so many references to Microsoft 365 or Office 365, and you’ll see that Microsoft 365 includes Office for Mac as well! Will this work on your Mac computer?


If you echo even half the doubts raised in the preceding section, then you are not alone. Nowhere have we found content that describes the distinctions between these different terms well. Maybe the descriptions themselves kept changing as the product lines evolved, and many people were as confused as we were. Clearly, there needs to be a resource explaining these distinctions. That's the reason we decided to create this plain English guide to explain what Microsoft 365 means, and how it relates to desktop versions such as Office 2021, Office 2019, Office 2016, and Office 2013. By the end of this article, we hope you will understand these concepts clearly.

Sometimes, oversimplification can help! Broadly speaking, there are two ways through which you can buy Microsoft Office:

  1. The first of these is how you have bought Office products typically: as a box that contains a product key—or even a product key that you buy online, and then install the product on your computer.
  2. The second way is through a subscription; think of this approach as renting the software.
Learn about the different licensing options for Microsoft Office using an analogy. What is a Software License?

The Perpetual Versions, Office 2021, 2019, 2016, and 2013

These are the familiar versions of Microsoft Office that get installed on your computer through an online installation (in some cases, you may get to use an Office install DVD or an ISO file). When you buy these versions, you typically also get a product key that you enter when the installation routine prompts you.

At the time of updating this page, Microsoft Office 2021 is the current version for both Windows and Mac. Office 2019 and 2016 are the older versions for Windows and Mac respectively. Office 2019, 2016, and some older versions still have millions of users who have not upgraded to Office 2021 or Microsoft 365 yet.

Perpetual Microsoft Office for Windows

There are five types of Office bundles available for Office 2021 for Windows:

Office 2013 Pro

  • Office Professional 2021: This suite includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access, and is intended for business use for one person on one PC.
  • Office Home & Business 2021: This package includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, and is intended for home and business use for one person on one PC.
  • Office Home & Student 2021: This package includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and is intended for home and educational use for one person on one PC.
  • Office LTSC Professional Plus 2021: This suite includes Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, Skype for Business, Teams, and Word. This suite is available to organizations through a volume licensing agreement.
  • Office LTSC Standard 2021: This suite includes a smaller subset of applications compared to Office LTSC Professional Plus 2021, but is similarly available to organizations through a volume licensing agreement.

Perpetual Microsoft Office for Mac

There are three types of Office bundles available for Office 2019 for Mac:

Office 2011 home-business

  • Office for Mac Home & Business 2021: This package includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, and is intended for home and business use for one person on one PC.
  • Office for Mac Home & Student 2021: This package includes Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint, and Outlook, and is intended for home and business use for one person on one PC.
  • Office LTSC Standard 2021: This suite includes a subset of Office applications, available to organizations through a volume licensing agreement.

A Little Less Complicated

Peter WuPeter Wu, Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft did make the distinctions between the various perpetual, LTSC, and subscription versions so much easier. Here's what he says:

Perpetual + Volume Licensing (LTSC)

Customers of Office Perpetual Licenses on Volume Licensing get builds from the LTSC (Long-Term Servicing Channel). This generally has fewer features than the Microsoft 365 subscription version because

  1. It is an older build, and
  2. Some feature are only enabled for a subscription license.

Perpetual + Non-Volume Licensing (incl. Retail)

Customers of Office Perpetual Licenses not on Volume Licensing get the same build from the Monthly Channel, Enterprise Monthly Channel, or Semi-Annual Channel that Microsoft 365 subscribers get, but it has fewer features because some of the features are only enabled for a subscription license.

So, to summarize:

  1. Perpetual License + Volume Licensing: Fewest features due to older build (LTSC) and subscription-only features not being enabled.
  2. Perpetual License + Non-Volume Licensing: More features due to newer build. But subscription-only features are still not enabled.
  3. Microsoft 365 Subscription: Most features due to newer build and all features being enabled. The newer the build, the more features are enabled. These are the existing builds:
    1. Beta Channel
    2. Monthly Channel (Preview)
    3. Monthly Channel
    4. Monthly Enterprise Channel
    5. Semi-Annual Channel (Preview)
    6. Semi-Annual Channel

Thank you so much for this explanation, Peter.

Additionally, there may be other bundles available for Office from other channels such as MSDN Visual Studio, TechNet, etc. Also, some Office family products including Visio and Project are no longer included in an Office bundle, and you need to buy or license them separately.

Get the Microsoft Office Suite for Free?

Want to get a free or cheaper copy of Microsoft Office? You may be eligible. To find out more, explore our Microsoft Office for Free? page.


The Subscription Version, Microsoft 365

In the simplest terms, just think of the 365 suffix for Office as a version of Microsoft Office that never gets outdated. You may be using the perpetual version of Microsoft Office today, but you would not be auto-upgraded to the next desktop version of Office when that is released, or even any interim release that Microsoft rolls out. And you will have to spend more dollars (or any other currency) to get a licensed version of the newer Office! And that’s probably something most of us have been doing for more than a decade already. Microsoft now wants to change our attitude and their revenue by making us all move to a subscription model, where your Office version will never get outdated—that’s what Microsoft 365 is! And now that makes even more sense since Microsoft has a complete roadmap for features in Office that only Microsoft 365 subscribers will get. Do note that Microsoft 365 is often known by its earlier name, Office 365.

Office 365

Is Microsoft 365 for everyone? Is it affordable? Do you even need it? Those are all valid questions, and let us explore these answers in our Microsoft 365 Versions page.

See Also: Version and License of Microsoft PowerPoint and Office


01 02 02 - Buying and Installing PowerPoint: Microsoft 365 or Office 2021? (Glossary Page)

You May Also Like: Updates for Office 365 Applications | Microsoft Office for Free?


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