I am one of those rare workers who have used tablets for productive tasks since the first Tablet PCs appeared in 2002. I first used pen tablets daily and then graduated to Tablet PCs with touch operation as soon as they became available. The hard part of that heavy usage was using Microsoft's own Office suite as it wasn't designed for touch control. That was expected to change with Windows RT and Office 2013, but the early look at the combination shows it is just business as usual.
The new Windows RT tablets are nice enough, as Windows has been totally retooled for use on a touch tablet. Like it or not the Metro interface makes using Windows on a tablet better than any earlier version of Windows.
Unquestionably the biggest selling point of Windows 8/RT tablets is Office 2013, the first version of the office suite from Microsoft written for the tablet. We are only just getting our first look at this revolutionary new Office for the tablet, and frankly it is underwhelming.
The best look (see video above) at Office 2013 on a Windows RT tablet so far comes from our own Ed Bott and Avram Piltch of Laptop Magazine. Their video look at using Office on a tablet is eye-opening. Having watched that video demonstration three times hoping I missed something, I can only conclude that using Office on an RT tablet is only feasible while using a keyboard and mouse.
To make Office 2013 touch friendly, Microsoft has basically bolted a Touch Mode on top of the apps. Without Touch Mode active, using Office by touch looks to be near impossible. Microsoft addresses that with Touch Mode to make some of the menus bigger for finger control.
This mode is apparently not active by default on a touch tablet. It must be manually triggered to turn it on, which is a strange design choice. It's even stranger that the control to activate Touch Mode is hidden. New users will have to know it's there somewhere and then go find it to activate it.
The Touch Mode trigger is a tiny little control that every demonstration I've seen to date show it is hard to touch and turn on. That's right, the touch optimization for Office 2013 is turned off by default, hidden from the tablet user, and then hard to turn on once discovered.
Even with Touch Mode active, while easier to operate by touch than before, Office is basically the same as it has been for years. The only conclusion I can reach after seeing it in action, and shared by some of the reviewers, is that you will only want to do serious Office work with a keyboard and mouse attached to your tablet.
That's right, you need a laptop equivalent to do more than "consuming", or looking at Office documents on a Windows 8 tablet. Anything more will be too difficult to do on the touch screen alone. While that seems logical to some, it begs the question of why Windows 8 was totally revamped with tablet control in mind?
Don't get me wrong, it is great that Windows 8 is versatile enough to work on all form factors. But the fact remains that if using Office on a Windows 8 tablet is not much better than on Windows Tablet PCs of old, it is business as usual.
The Office and Windows teams have always been separate at Microsoft, and with different business objectives the two products have never worked particularly well together on tablets in the past.
The hope was strong that this would now change with Windows 8 being a major focus at Microsoft, but early demonstrations of Office 2013 on Windows RT are showing that tablet operation is simply bolted on top of Office. Just as it has been for years.
It's worth noting that the Office 2013 being shown on Windows RT is only the Preview version. Even though Windows RT as shown is RTM, Office still has room for improvement before it goes gold. Let's hope that's the case, and before Windows 8 tablets start shipping.