Microsoft has unveiled Office 2013 Preview, which brings a Metro-like feel, as well as revamped touch tools intended to make it easier to use the desktop applications on a tablet.
The company introduced the Office update on Monday, along with new versions of the Office servers (Exchange, SharePoint and Lync) and a major update to the Office 365 cloud service. A public preview of Office 2013 is now available for free download, with options for consumers and enterprise customers.
The updated business software suite, formerly known as Office 15, includes refreshes of Word, Excel, Outlook, Access, PowerPoint and OneNote. All six applications now have the signature Metro look and feel, ready for Windows 8 — though all run on Windows 7.
"We've transformed Office to embrace some of the design concepts and principles in Window 8, Windows Phone 8, and Metro," the company's chief executive Steve Ballmer said at a launch event in San Francisco. "It's still a product, but focused on Office as a service."
Microsoft told ZDNet that only Windows 7 and 8 are currently supported, and XP and Vista users are unable to upgrade to Office 2013.
"We're updating the entire product line to get ready for Windows 8," Ballmer said. "The flagship application is Microsoft Office, in the lives of most of our customers."
New features in Office include tools for importing PDF content and for working with online image sources, as well as improved collaboration tools and integration with Microsoft's cloud services.
Despite the Metro look and feel of the software, with its near-chromeless user interface, the applications in Office 2013 are traditional Win32 desktop software. However, the package does come with two Windows 8 Metro-style companion applications — versions of OneNote and Lync, which will be available through the Windows 8 store.
"Both our Metro apps are still being fine-tuned," Chris Pratley, Microsoft's general manger for Office, told ZDNet. "They'll still be available at the same time, but they're not as far along as the desktop apps are."
Asked if the rest of Office would be available in Metro as well as desktop versions, he said: "We're fully committed to the Metro platform; it's just a matter of time before get the rest of Office on there."
In addition, a button in Office 2013 allows people to switch between two user-interface layouts, one for traditional desktops and the other for tablet use. In 'Touch Mode', the UI elements move slightly apart and buttons get bigger, so they are easier to touch. Applications have also been tweaked; for example, message controls in Outlook 2013 are on the left of the screen, for easy access by a thumb.
A significant change is to how Microsoft licenses Office. Boxed copies will still be available, but Microsoft is emphasizing its subscription services, which bundle Office 2013 with its consumer and business cloud services.
"When you choose to buy the subscription, you're buying Office for yourself, not for a device," Pratley said. "That means it's available on all the devices you love. If you happen to have Mac, you'll have Office on Mac; if you happen to have a PC, you'll have Office on PC."
Subscribers will be able to install Office 2013 on up to five different machines at any one time, and will get automatic updates for new features and services.
Subscription versions of Office will be installed on demand from the web. Consumers will get an enhanced version of Microsoft's cloud storage service, with 20GB of extra space. Business users will be able to use Office 2013 in conjunction with a new release of Office 365, which updates Exchange, SharePoint and Lync.
The Office servers are also be updated for on-premise installations, for use with boxed and volume licencing copies of Office 2013.
Subscriptions will cover more than Windows and Macintosh versions of Office, and will provide support for mobile devices. While Microsoft is not revealing support beyond the Android and iOS versions of OneNote and Lync Pratley noted: "Any devices we make local client bits for, you will have those."
A final version of Office 2013 is expected in early 2013, with an additional preview release for Windows RT tablets due in October 2012.