microsoft-office-15The jump from Windows 7, and indeed everything that’s gone before it since Windows 3.1, to the Metro UI in Windows 8, is quite blatantly an enormous change to get to grips with for users. But what’s made Microsoft’s software so popular over recent years, particularly amongst the vast majority of non-techy consumers, is its familiarity – including, and especially, Office applications.

Even the relatively slight, in comparison to Windows 8, change to the ribbon UI brought in for Office 2007, was met with more than a little hesitation by users who just wanted it plain and simple, as they were used to. So, I guess what I’m getting at here is: How has Office been adapted to fit the Metro UI and Windows 8? Has it been successful? What’s new? What’s gone? But most importantly of all, is it going to satisfy millions of users accustomed to Office of old? Let’s take a look.

New Features

In terms of new features, such as what you can do within the applications, not much has really changed. In this respect, it’s really quite difficult to agree with Steve Ballmer when he says that this is the ‘biggest’ and ‘most ambitious’ release in the company’s history. Windows 8 might well be, yes, but not much has really been added to Office to justify this claim. Having said that, let’s not jump the gun and assume nothing has changed. Because a lot has.

Focus On The Cloud

The vast majority of changes are focused on the web, and how the user interacts with, or indeed doesn’t directly interact with, the web. ‘The Cloud’ is probably a term you’ve heard a lot over the last couple of years, and for good reason: it’s where the majority of software companies are headed. Microsoft’s no different, and if you need an example of how then look no further than Office 15.

For instance, Office 15 is the first iteration of Microsoft’s office software that, by default, saves all documents to SkyDrive. Well, that’s not strictly true, as the Windows Phone adaptation of Office does too, but this is certainly the first on the desktop. It doesn’t change how the user will create and edit documents though. Don’t start to panic that you’ll have to start using Office in a browser, because it’s a desktop application as ever. It’s just the default save directory. Imagine it much the same to how iCloud works with documents on a Mac, if you’re familiar. You save it, you can access it on other devices hooked up to the same account. You never need see it in a directory, as such.

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Another interesting feature I found hiding away in the Ribbon UI of Office 2013 is ‘apps for office’. A feature which allows you to essentially find and install web pages hosted inside office documents/spreadsheets/presentations, such as dictionaries or file converters. I can see the potential, but it definitely looks a work in progress at the moment, with the apps being located online and having to visit a browser to get them being a particularly ugly process. Keep an eye on this space though, it could, quite possibly get interesting. We’ll see though.

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Word

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The first new feature of word which I’ll mention is that you can now embed web videos from Bing, Youtube and others via an embed code, into documents. this is particularly useful as Word can be used as a tool for blogging, and this year there is a greater emphasis on sharing on the web, not printing, so it’s now more viable and useful for users than ever before.

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There’s also now full compatibility with .PDF files in Word, allowing you to edit them as well as view them etc. Again, helpful for sharing and the web.

My favorite addition to Word, though, is the new focus on reading. With this being designed for tablets, as well as the desktop unlike previous iterations of Office, the new reading view comes in extremely handy. No matter the formatting of the document, the new reader mode will bring up a view that re-formats it to fit the screen you’re using perfectly so you can have a crystal clear view of what you’re reading. What’s more impressive about this, though, is the ‘resume reading’ feature, which as the name suggests, allows you to resume reading exactly where you left off. That means on any device. You can begin reading on your desktop, then pick up your tablet that’s also connected to SkyDrive and pick up exactly where you left off.

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Excel

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The world’s favorite spreadsheet application also has its fair share of new features this year. Microsoft has gone a long way to making the chore of building spreadsheets a little more automated. For example, the new ‘flash fill’ feature. Essentially, this makes it much easier to input large amounts of data in an organized way if you’re pasting it in. Usually, it would paste into one cell for example, however flash fill, if you just replicate one cell of information next to the paste, will re-format the whole thing into the appropriate columns for you at the touch of a button.

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Quick analysis is another time-saving achievement from Microsoft, simply allowing a much cleaner and quicker way to manipulate data into graphs and charts. All in the name of productivity.

PowerPoint

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The first important feature of the new PowerPoint is the ‘presenter view’, which if you’re using multiple devices to deliver a presentation, such as controlling and glancing at notes on a tablet, and displaying on a PC, you can now keep watch over what’s being shown to the audience simultaneously with viewing notes.

There’s also a greater focus on social networking, with the ability to insert images from Facebook, Flickr etc. easily from your associated accounts. Annoyingly, though, there’s no way to insert an image directly from a URL without saving it first, nor can you embed web videos as you can with Word. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

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Outlook

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Perhaps the application receiving the most important new feature to bring Office to multiple platforms and the cloud, is Outlook. Now supporting Exchange ActiveSync, Outlook will now natively keep all of your mail, contacts and calendars fully synchronized with the same application on your other devices.

Social integration remains present in Outlook, allowing you to share your schedule etc. on your favorite social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Much like PowerPoint, there’s also a new weather bar, which allows you to see a 3-day forecast at a glance, when you’re making appointments. Again, I’m not so sure this is a necessary feature to have there by default, but is perhaps a nice extra for people who work in seasonal professions dependent on good weather.

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OneNote

One of the younger elements of the Office suite is the note-taking application OneNote, which is also available on Windows Phone, iOS and Android. There are actually two new versions of this for Office 15, the desktop and metro versions, which differ in their usability slightly. You’ll want the one designed for whichever type of device you’re using, desktop or tablet. It’s interesting that OneNote is the app that’s been most customized for the touch interface, but we’ll talk more about that later.

The touch version introduces a new radial menu which allows you to press and hold to bring up a formatting menu, in a very similar fashion to the much-hyped Courier tablet, before the project was killed by Microsoft a couple of years ago.

User Interface Changes

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Considering the drastic change to the Metro UI, the overall interface of Office has more or less stayed the same. Some new elements have been added to each application, but the ribbon UI remains as stubbornly present as ever and the applications themselves, with the exception of the metro version of OneNote, remain outside the Metro UI and launch you into the old school desktop when you boot them up.

Changes have been made to make it more accessible for touch users, though, with a greater spread between buttons on the ribbon and elsewhere, so it’s easier to press with fingers instead of cursors as has always been the case previously. It does still feel a little cramped though, particularly in Excel and Outlook, with a lot of controls stuffed into a relatively small place.

Each application comes with a Metro splash screen, too, containing a plethora of templates, each of which have sub-varieties which allow you to change the look slightly, such as color, or background effects, without screwing up your work.

Each application has a full screen mode now too, allowing you to remove the ribbon and only bring it up when called as a sort of pull down from the top of the screen, which is helpful if you only have a relatively small display to play with on a tablet.

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Microsoft’s Masterplan

Microsoft Office has become a staple product for a large proportion of its customers, and therefore Microsoft are now selling all ARM tablets with Office built in for free. For others, there’s a distinct move towards a subscription-based Office, with Office 365 being free for the trial period, but setting you back a bit once the final product is released. Deep within the menu hierarchies, there’s also numerous mentions of a ‘SkyDrive Pro‘, and while this is suspected to be along the same lines as SharePoint, it’s yet to be clarified whether it’s any more than just a rename, or referring to the paid SkyDrive plans.

I think Office 2013 has proven a big head-scratcher for Microsoft. The developers have taken a massive leap of faith for Windows 8, and perhaps they see Office as their fall-back product. If people don’t like Windows 8, they’ll still buy it because they love, or need, Office. If they screw Office up too, then they could see a mass exodus to a rival company in the desktop market, especially with Apple dominating the tablet arena still, and Microsoft having little to no share in it or the smartphone market. It’s becoming more about the ecosystem, after all, than the individual parts.

As far as I’m concerned, while there are numerous great changes in Office, it’s not a great deal different to what’s gone before – just more in line with the general look and feel of Windows 8, which is a basic necessity. It seems like a baby step towards the next release, which will be much more focused on touch, once Microsoft has a significant foot in the game.