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Microsoft takes another step toward making Office apps smarter

Microsoft is continuing its 'Bingification' of Office with new Bing Knowledge Graph-powered Researcher and Editor features for Word 2016, along with a new visual-cue feature for PowerPoint.

I seldom use Microsoft Word. I just don't need all the bells and whistles it offers, as I'm a minimalist when it comes to writing.

The new Word Editor feature

But Microsoft has a plan that may win over users like me, by adding more built-in intelligence -- rather than just more power-user features -- to its core Office apps.

Word is getting new research and editing tools. And PowerPoint is getting a new visual-cue assistant.

Word Researcher is a tool aimed primarily, though not exclusively, at students creating research papers. It's meant to help surface "credible" content and make it available to them via built-in search and citation features. Researcher uses the Bing Knowledge Graph (a k a "Satori") to decide what's appropriate and and citation-worthy content.

Over time, Microsoft plans to expand Researcher's set of referencable materials by adding content from "national science and health centers, well-known encyclopedias, history databases and more," according to the company's July 26 blog post. Because Researcher will be a service, not a static feature, the content it provides will be regularly updated.

Microsoft has been working to integrate more of Bing into Office for the past few years. It's been on a similar mission to "Bingify" Outlook for just about as long.

The current Smart Lookup capability in various Office 2016 apps enables users to get definitions for words and concepts. Researcher is more focused on research-related tasks and designed to help provide document structure, officials said.

Researcher is available as of today, July 26, to Office 365 users with Word 2016 on Windows desktops. Microsoft also plans to add mobile device support for Office 365 users whose plans include locally installable Word "soon."

Potentially more interesting to a broader audience is another new Word tool, a built-in, intelligent editor that goes beyond the basic spell check and grammar-checking capabilities that are already in Word.

That tool, which Microsoft is calling Editor, will inform users why certain word choices may not be accurate. Editor also will change the visual cues in Word to distinguish between spelling edits (red squiggle), potential grammar issues (blue double underline), or overall style issues (gold dotted line) such as redundancy and wordiness.

Via Editor, users will be able to customize Word's built-in editing features with company branding and/or various standard style guides, as well, if they so choose.

Editor is coming to Office 365 users with Word 2016 on Windows desktops this fall. Microsoft officials said they'll evaluate usage trends to decide whether to expand availability to other platforms.

The new PowerPoint Zoom feature

Continuing along the "keep users focused" line, Microsoft is adding a new feature to PowerPoint called Zoom that will create an interactive summary and provide a map of a presentation. For anyone who has struggled with staying on course when giving or watching a presentation, Zoom is meant for you, as it's designed to help provide visual cues along the way.

Zoom will be available as part of the July Office 365 updates, going to Insiders first and then all subscribers "soon after," according to Microsoft.

Office 2016: The Empire strikes back

The latest version of Microsoft Office has a ton of changes under the covers, most of them aimed at playing catch-up to the collaborative strengths of Google Apps.

In related news, Microsoft also is expanding availability of its Focused Inbox (the replacement for Clutter) to Outlook for Windows, Mac, and the web. Focused Inbox, a capability developed by the Acompli team that Microsoft acquired a couple years ago, already is available for Outlook for iOS and Android.

Focused Inbox is meant to automatically sort users' email and separate out the most relevant and important ones. This is a feature I turned off immediately in Outlook on Android, but I know others who find it helpful. I prefer to sort my own mail to prevent anything important from being categorized otherwise.

And Microsoft is turning on the promised @mentions in Outlook starting this week, as well. Microsoft announced plans to add @mentions to Outlook late last year. These @mentions are meant to help better get email recipients' attention.

The @mentions feature already is in Outlook on the web, and is available to Office Insiders using Outlook 2016 on Windows and Mac. They'll be "coming soon" to Outlook for iOS, Android, and Windows 10 Mobile, Microsoft execs said today.

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