If there's a new Windows, then surely a new Office can't be far behind. With Windows 8 almost out the door, it's about time for Office 2013 to show its face. We've seen snippets of it in conference presentations and at the Surface launch, and we've heard rumours of its features, fuelled by the occasional leak from the confidential beta programme. Finally it's ready to take its bow, and Microsoft today unveiled the first public beta of its new Office.
We've been working with the preview release of the Office 365 ProPlus version of Office 2013 for the last week, alongside a beta of the new Office 365 service. With the two new releases it's clear that Microsoft is making another of its big bets on the cloud, with Office 365 users getting far more from Office 2013 than users who buy the boxed product.
Microsoft has told ZDNet that Office 2013 will only be available for Windows 7 and 8, so you won't be able to upgrade if you're using Windows XP or Vista.
More: Ed Bott: Microsoft defends desktop while moving Office 2013 to the cloud | Office 2013: Editions at a glance and FAQ | Office 2013: A closer look (in-depth screenshot gallery) | Mary Jo Foley: Microsoft's new Office: The cloud finally takes center stage | Microsoft's new Office: More strategic than Windows 8?
Office and the cloud
Microsoft is offering four different preview releases of Office 2013, with the three business subscriptions all built around its Office 365 and SkyDrive services. They're also all subscription services that use a new version of Microsoft's Click-to-run tools to install applications from the cloud (and to keep them up to date). All the subscriptions allow users to install Office on five machines — and Microsoft has said that this will be across multiple platforms, including Mac OS. There's also 20GB of additional SkyDrive storage for subscribers (we also noted the appearance of a reference to SkyDrive Pro on our test machines, although the service does not currently seem to be active).
The Click-to-run-based Office On Demand streams the Office applications to PCs, so you can quickly get up and running with the core functions installed first, while the rest of the application installs in the background. For example, you can stream in a copy of PowerPoint and start a presentation, without having to wait for a full download. Installs are linked to user accounts, so you can also quickly deauthorise a PC from the Office 365 web portal and temporarily install on a friend's or a co-worker's machine just to do one thing and then move on. Once you close a streamed application, it's gone — and because it runs in an application virtualisation sandbox there's no trace of it, or of your files.
The four preview plans are Office 365 Home Premium Preview, Office 365 Small Business Premium Preview, Office 365 ProPlus Preview, and Office 365 Enterprise Preview. Consumers with the Home Premium plan will get the core Office applications (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher), while the Small Business Premium plan adds access to the Office 365 cloud services, including Exchange, SharePoint and Lync for up to 10 users. The ProPlus option adds support for up to 25 users, and also includes the InfoPath and Lync applications. Similarly, the Enterprise plan adds more complex Exchange support with archiving and compliance tools.
All of the plans get access to a new version of Microsoft's Office Web Apps, so you can edit files anywhere. Files are also automatically synced to SkyDrive when you save them, giving you a cloud backup. Business subscriptions get access to Office 365 SharePoint, using this in preference to SkyDrive.
Giving Office the Metro feel
Office 2013 is a traditional Win32 desktop application, although it's joined by a pair of Windows 8 Metro-style companion applications in the shape of new OneNote and Lync versions. Even so, it's definitely got the Metro look-and-feel, with a near chromeless user interface, even on Windows 7.
The ribbon is still a key component of the Office user interface, although ribbon tabs now get new all-caps titles and elements have flatter, more Metro-like icons. Microsoft has chosen to automatically collapse the ribbon on some screens — a 1,200-by-900-resolution notebook has the ribbon on by default, for example, whereas it's collapsed on a 1,366-by-768 tablet. You'll find much of the UI now optimised for 16:9 screens, with sidebars where earlier versions of Office used dialogue boxes (although it's possible to detach sidebars if need be).
There are also new Metro format icons for the Office applications, all of which use the same metaphor of an open file folder stamped with the application's initial letter. Oddly, while most icons keep the familiar colours, Outlook drops the yellow for blue (with yellow overlays for incoming email). It's an unusual choice, and makes the new Outlook icon easy to confuse with Word's.
A touch Office
Touch is finally a first-class citizen in Office 2013. The new Metro user interface takes advantage of the touch features built into Windows 8, and while most of Office still comprises desktop applications, it's as easy to use on a tablet as a traditional PC or notebook. Microsoft has actually given Office 2013 two subtly different user interface modes, with a single button to switch between the two (a button we were surprised to find wasn't a default part of the Quick Access Toolbar, although it's very easy to add it). Tap the Touch mode button, and UI elements move slightly apart, making them easier to touch. Buttons get bigger, and there are additional cues that build on the Windows 8 touch features.
Touch mode also adds additional touch controls to applications — for example, in Outlook 2013, message controls are added to the left of the screen, where they're easily accessible with a thumb. With Touch mode Microsoft is trying to make it easier for touch users to work with a traditional desktop application. It's not entirely successful, but it's certainly a lot more usable than earlier versions of Office on touch devices. In practice you're still more likely to use Office with a keyboard and a mouse or trackpad, than purely as a touch application. However, reaching out to touch the screen could prove a useful way to interact with a document, as an adjunct to the familiar desktop tools.