For the past year or so, the team developing the next release of Microsoft Office has been eerily quiet. The few things they did have to say during that time were invariably drowned out by the public discussion of Windows 8.
That changes today, as Microsoft officially unveils its consumer preview of Office 2013.
What’s most remarkable about this update is not that it unveils a new, Metro-influenced design for Office. That’s expected, as is support for a new generation of touch-enabled devices that should appear later this year with the launch of Windows 8.
No, the biggest surprise is that Microsoft has taken its cloud services, desktop programs, and browser-based apps and fused them into a product that feels unified and natural. And they’ve pulled off this impressive accomplishment without altering the fundamental character of Office.
If you’re a longtime Office user, you’ll find that Office 2013 feels new and greatly improved without feeling dramatically different. That’s an important consideration for a piece of software that has roughly 1 billion users worldwide.
Much of what’s in Office 2013 is, to be frank, not that new. The online file storage builds on SkyDrive and SharePoint. The utility that syncs local and cloud-based files is a retooled version of Groove, rebranded as SkyDrive Pro. Microsoft’s App-V and Click-to-Run technologies are at the heart of its new web-based installers. There are no new desktop programs or Web apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and the rest of the Office family are still around. File formats are, as far as I can tell, unchanged between Office 2010 and 2013.
And yet, after using Office 2013 for a week, I do not want to go back. In the course of writing this first look (it’s far too early for a review), I was able to switch between multiple devices without skipping a beat. I started on a desktop, moved to a notebook, picked up a tablet … documents (with changes intact) and settings followed me without requiring that I do anything more than sign in to my new Office account.
So what’s new in Office 2013?
The biggest change is in how Office is made available. You can still opt for the conventional Office distribution, with a perpetual license tied to a PC. But Office 2013 adds a new set of Office 365 subscription services that allow you to install the desktop apps on up to five PCs and store documents using 20 GB of included SkyDrive storage.
The Office 2013 user interface follows many of the Metro design guidelines of Windows 8. The biggest change is the removal of “chrome”—so when you open an Office desktop app on Windows 7 or Windows 8, you don’t see any window borders. Actions within programs are accompanied by smooth animations that make it easier to see what the program is doing on your behalf—those animations are not just eye candy.
The Ribbon is still there, but flattened, with a plain white background. You’ll notice vivid colors on the File menu and in the status bar along the bottom, with color-coding to help distinguish between different office programs (green for Excel, dark blue for Word, orange for PowerPoint, and so on).
Office 2013 was clearly built to work best on Windows 8, although I also tested it on Windows 7. Interestingly, despite being a desktop app, Outlook taps into Windows 8's Notifications feature to display pop-up messages when new email arrives and when appointments are due. There's no support for Live Tiles on the Metro Start screen, though—that feature is for Metro style apps only.
All of the desktop apps also include options that make them easier to use on touch-enabled devices such as tablets. For example, you can use Word’s new Read mode to reflow a document into columns that use the full screen, then flip through he document with a flick of the finger. A Touch mode button, available on the Quick Launch toolbar, adds extra space between Ribbon icons and other navigation elements to make them easier to tap.
The Office 365 versions include cloud storage, with SkyDrive Pro to sync files between SharePoint and the desktop. Microsoft has positioned SkyDrive as its consumer storage service and SharePoint for business use. I was able to successfully connect to multiple SkyDrive and SharePoint accounts and access them from any device where I was signed in.
The cloud-based storage also allows easy online sharing and syncing. I was able to share files using simple e-mail links and shared folders, and all of the web and desktop apps allowed my collaborators to work on the same document in real time, with changes clearly marked.
The Office account syncs Office settings as well. When I signed in to a device, documents I had opened on a different device appeared in my Recent list. On a computer where Office 2013 wasn’t installed, I had the option to view and edit documents using the Office Web Apps or stream a temporary copy of the full desktop app without counting against my five-device license limit. After logging off, the streamed app and documents were removed from the device.
To help you get a more complete picture of Office 2013 in action, I've put together a screenshot gallery with detailed captions.