Microsoft's Office 15: To Metro or not to Metro?

Will Microsoft make Office 15 a Metro-style app on Windows 8? Inquiring customers and partners would like to know.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

The Verge posted on January 31 what author Tom Warren concedes is a rumor -- at least at this point -- about Office 15 not being a "Metro style" app/suite, but, instead, incorporating some Metro elements to varying degrees in different Office apps.

Whether Microsoft would make Office 15 a Metro application is something Microsoft watchers, partners and customers have been wondering about for more than a year. Metro -- in case you need a refresher -- is a design language and style that Microsoft is using in a number of its products, from Windows Phone to Windows 8. Metro-style apps, in Windows 8 parlance, are "modern, immersive" apps which are developed using the WinRT Windows runtime that was introduced with Windows 8.

Despite the fact that the Technical Preview of Office 15 for select customers and partners kicked off yesterday, we still don't know for sure which way(s) the Softies have decided to go with Office 15: Metro, non-Metro or partially Metro.

At the Financial Analyst Meeting (FAM) in September 2011, CEO Steve Ballmer told attendees that Microsoft was "thinking hard" about what it would mean to make Office 15 a Metro-style app. But Ballmer never actually said that Microsoft's plan was to go this route.

Some folks have assumed that Microsoft would have to go Metro in order to make Office 15 more touch-centric and suited for Windows 8 tablets and touch PCs. But Microsoft design director Steve Kaneko told the Verge late last year that this wasn't necessarily the case.

From a synopsis of the Kaneko interview on the Verge:

"(The large Metro style interface, designed for touch interaction, doesn't scale in an obvious way to software like Office that has a lot of dense information. While Metro attempts to eliminate what Microsoft calls 'chrome' (superfluous design elements), he says that chrome has traditionally served a functional purpose in crowded applications, and the design team now has to express grouping and visual hierarchy with composition, layout, font scaling, and contrast ratios."

There's also, obviously, the need for speed in terms of rolling out the next version of Office. Microsoft officials haven't said when to expect Office 15 to be generally available (the public beta is due late this summer), but I continue to hear the target is end of calendar 2012. That's not a whole lot of time to redo Office and all of its many piece parts as Metro-style apps -- even if you give the Office team a generous head start and say they potentially could have begun working on a Metro-style Office back in January 2011, when Microsoft first showed off early Windows 8 prototypes.

If Microsoft isn't redoing Office 15 as a Metro-style app, this means at least the Windows 8 version of Office 15 will be a Desktop app. Desktop apps are "legacy style" Windows apps that are designed to work on x86-based versions of Windows 8. Last we heard officially, there also would be support for Desktop apps on ARM-based Windows 8, but Microsoft officials have declined to confirm this remains the case, after some rumors to the contrary. (Hopefully once Microsoft gets some Windows 8 ARM tablets into the hands of testers, we'll know for sure.)

Also, last we head, non-Metro-style applications would work on Windows 8 on ARM. However, legacy Windows apps would need to be recompiled/rewritten in order to run on the Windows 8 ARM platform.

So here are my questions after trying to piece this all together:

  • How many different versions of Office 15 for Windows will there be? In other words, will there be an Office 15 for Windows 8 (x86 and/or ARM); plus some kind of Office 15 update SKU for Windows 7 (and maybe Vista)?
  • What about Apple support? Will there be both an Office 15 equivalent for Mac OSX and iOS (the rumored iPad version)?
  • Warren's Verge piece today mentions a "radial dial" as providing a way for Office 15 users to more easily access the product on touch devices. Whatever this thing is, what does it mean for the Office Ribbon? Is it a replacement? A supplement? Will the dial only work when it senses Office is running on a touch device? Update: Thanks to reader Matthew Miller, we now know that Microsoft has been tinkering with the idea of the "radial dial" since 2007. Here's a transcript of a Convergence speech by CEO Steve Ballmer where they showed off the dial, a navigation concept from Microsoft's Center of Information Work. (Miller also found a YouTube video where the radial dial makes an appearance at around the 5:10 mark.)
  • What about Office Web Apps -- those Webified versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote? Could Microsoft be (at least) Metro-fying those apps?
  • When, if ever, will Microsoft make Office on PCs/tablets a fully Metro-style app? I'd guess this answer is dependent on when/if Microsoft pulls the plug on Desktop support in Windows itself....

What do you still want to know about Office 15's "Metro-ness"? Do you think Office 15 be a Metro-style suite? And does it matter if it's not?

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