Microsoft adds 'Tell Me' help field to Office Web Apps

Microsoft is rolling out some user interface changes to its Office Web Apps, including the addition of a new 'Tell Me' help field to assist with command navigation.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft made some changes to its Office Web Apps, including the addition of a navigational tool that goes beyond the current ribbon.


In a January 22 post to the revamped Office Blogs site, Microsoft officials described the changes the team has made to Word Web App. Word Web App is one of the four free Webified versions of Microsoft's Office apps. (The other three are Excel Web App, PowerPoint Web App and One Note Web App.)

The most telling -- no pun intended -- change is the addition of a new search field to help users more easily navigate the commands presented by the Office Web Apps ribbon. Microsoft calls the new search technology "Tell Me." Microsoft officials noted the addition of the Tell Me box to Word Web App, but didn't mention the fact that it also has been added to Excel Web App, too. I've asked when and if Tell Me will come to PowerPoint Web App and OneNote Web App. 

I doubt the new Tell Me has anything to do with Microsoft's acquisition of TellMe Networks in 2007. However, there's a rumor circulating that Microsoft may require users to say the words "Bing, tell me..." in order to activate the Cortana search technology set to debut as part of Windows Phone 8.1. (I don't know whether MSNerd is right about "Bing, tell me" and Microsoft isn't commenting.)

Microsoft has been honing Bing's ability to process natural-language queries, so it's not completely far-fetched that the new Tell Me search box in Office Web Apps could make use Bing on the back-end. I've asked Microsoft officials if this is the case; no word back yet.

Update: This is kind of interesting. Right now, Tell Me uses "a mapping engine to help users discover functionality based on what they want to accomplish," a spokesperson said. In other words, Tell Me isn't currently using Bing as its back-end; it's using proprietary mapping technology. But, the spokesperson said: "The future of Tell me will definitely include Bing."

Microsoft made a few other tweaks to its Office Web Apps as part of this latest update. The four apps all look flatter and more "Metroish" from a user-interface standpoint. There also seems to be a bit more spacing between buttons, possibly to make Office Web Apps easier to use with touch.

The Word Web App also includes a simplified footnotes/endnotes experience, plus "enhanced rendering support for Shapes, Textboxes and WordArt."

I've asked Microsoft officials for more information on changes it made to the Web Apps beyond the Word Web App and am awaiting more information on that. 

Update: A Microsoft spokesperson said Tell Me would come "soon" to the PowerPoint and OneNote Web Apps. There was no additional information from Microsoft on any new features added to anything beyond Word Web App.

Microsoft first introduced Office Web Apps with Office 2010. Office Web Apps are usable in a variety of browsers -- including Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari -- on different operating systems and form factors (PCs, tablets, smartphones). Office Web Apps include a subset of the functionality in the full Office versions of each of the apps.

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