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Microsoft Office has changed, how you use it should too

Office has evolved into a mix of applications that are continually adding new features and cloud services. Time to rethink how you use it.

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The other day I came across an author on Twitter looking for a software package that had the writing and editing features of Microsoft Word with the collaborative editing of Google Docs so they could work on chapters of a book with their colleagues without emailing a Word document around and repeatedly merging changes. 

With the ghostly sobbing of every Office product and marketing person for the last five years ringing in my ears, I suggested that what they were actually looking for was Microsoft Word, with the document saved into OneDrive.

Then there was the announcement about the latest frontline worker features in Teams; when it arrived, I spent a moment wondering if I should make a new section in OneNote for Teams information or if I should keep putting it into my Office section. As usual, I clipped it into the Office section, because new apps like Teams are what make Office what it is now: an evolving mix of applications that are continually adding new features and the cloud services that make those applications continually more powerful.

That OneNote section is actually named Office 365, but for a long time it was called Office 15, because that was the pre-release name of Office 2013. I used to create a new OneNote section for each new Office release. But by the time Office 2016 came along, I'd clipped so much information about Office 365 into the Office 15 section that I realised the three-yearly releases of the desktop clients weren't really what Office was about any more.

My Office 2016 and 2019 notes all went into the Office 365 section, because that way they were in the same place as the announcements about Yammer and Power BI, Sway and the Office Graph, the Office Remote app for controlling PowerPoint presentations on your PC with your phone, the death of InfoPath, Office for iPad, the acquisition of Accompli and Sunrise, and one of my favourite Office features ever, Clutter.

In 2013, Office 365 went from one million consumer subscriptions to two million -- and while not all of those subscribers started using their SkyDrive storage, lots of them were using the free Skype minutes that came with the subscription. The business version of Office 365 was picking up customers like British Airways, the state of New York, the city of San Jose and a surprising number of financial services (an industry that everyone expected to be reticent about cloud services). Between 2012 and 2014, Exchange Online needed 600 percent more servers.

SEE: 50 time-saving tips to speed your work in Microsoft Office (free PDF)

At the time, the appeal was giving up the pain of configuring and running Exchange and SharePoint and in return getting the latest features in the client apps that worked because the servers were deployed and configured the way they were supposed to be. At the time, Julia White compared it to buying a car instead of a kit: "We used to sell you the parts and you made the car; we used to ship the pieces to the car and people had to build it themselves and now we just give them the car."

That was Office the way it had always worked inside Microsoft and for a very few customers who always had the latest version installed. It was what Microsoft once called Software Plus Services (back in 2007), but until the cloud was common hardly anyone knew what that meant.

As Office 365 matured, the monthly updates went from being new checkboxes in the admin portal to new features in the applications that were the kind of improvements you used to have to wait three years to get. PowerPoint 2016 let you record a video of what you were doing on your PC; that screen recording had been in PowerPoint 2013 for months if you were getting the monthly updates.

Office 2016 added six new charts to Excel, for the first time in years, and it included a rather basic scheduling app called GigJam; monthly updates to Office 2016 added features like ink annotations in Word and automatically morphed transitions in PowerPoint. Features I'd been requesting for years arrived, like an easy way to add your own corrections to AutoCorrect. Mac users got more updates, adding in more of the features that Office had had for years on Windows. At this point, I'd have to look up what was new in Office 2019 because when I looked at the feature list, it looked like all the new features I'd been getting month by month in Office 2016.

And then there are the new services for Office like Planner and Teams, integrations like Flow and PowerApps for making your own workflows and mobile or web apps, Forms for making surveys and polls (and forms and questionnaires), To-Do (the Wunderlist replacement that's starting to integrate with OneNote and Cortana, StaffHub (a much better tool for scheduling shifts and appointments), Kaizala (a mobile chat app designed for people who will never have a desktop and need to do all their scheduling and collaboration and co-ordination on a phone), Stream and Video for sharing videos within a company -- plus the way SharePoint is turning into a modern content and collaboration service rather than where documents go to get deleted by admins every six months. Eleven years later, those Software Plus Services ideas are looking pretty routine.

If you're a home user, you'll see handy new features -- like Excel automatically knowing what a country is and looking it up in the Microsoft Knowledge Graph and adding a list of states or cities and timezones, or PowerPoint finding images for you and suggesting the design for your slide -- but Office might feel like the same product it's always been.

The same is true if you're a tiny company with one or two or five people in, and you never have to work on the same documents or make connections between different chunks of data. It's not that Office hasn't changed; it's that the way you use Office hasn't changed.

SEE: 30 things you should never do in Microsoft Office (free PDF)

You'll look at the Editor spell checker and think it's just a new user interface for the old spell checker that makes you stop and see how many grammar mistakes you've made before you can actually get on with fixing your spelling mistakes. In fact, it's a whole new Ai-powered system that learns from the new words people add as well as from the Knowledge Graph. So the next time a company name is a mis-spelling of a real word (like lift and Lyft), Word might never mark it as a mistake and make you add it to the dictionary yourself.

But if you work in a team that needs to collaborate and stay up to date and pass information around, or a division or department of a larger company, or in an enterprise large enough to write its own line of business apps, the more the new Office 365 services and the features they light up in the Office clients will make sense to you. @ mentioning colleagues in a Word document and leaving them a to-do in the document for where they fill in their section, sending out a survey through Forms that gets collected as an Excel spreadsheet that Excel Ideas turns into a Pivot Chart for you, looking at MyAnalytics and SharePoint to see who is working on the same areas as you that you haven't spoken to recently; those are very different things from writing an invoice or typing out the bullet points of a presentation.

Just because Office can still do all the old things doesn't mean it hasn't changed to add new ideas like the structured tasks of 'microwork' or serverless workflows that automatically respond to new information arriving.

It's just that if you don't use Office differently, none of that gets in your way as you do the familiar Office things.

Saying that Office hasn't changed in 20 years is like saying a college graduate is just the same as the five-year-old you first met -- and probably just as annoying to them.

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