If there's a new Windows, then surely a new Office can't be far behind. Withalmost 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 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.
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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.
It's hard for Microsoft to change its familiar word processing software. There aren't that many new things we need to do when editing or creating documents. However, we're now consuming more and more documents digitally: rather than print them out, we send each other virtual printouts — often PDF files that need separate readers and can lose fidelity. With Word 2013, Microsoft aims to make your word processor your document reader.
Word's new read mode is designed to work well on tablet devices like the upcoming Surface. Instead of scrolling through virtual reams of paper, it reflows text to fit screens so you can tap from page to page, zooming into images and tables. There's also no distraction from extraneous menu items — Word's read mode turns off most editing functions. Read mode uses the cloud to keep different devices in sync, so you can switch from a PC to a tablet and carry on reading exactly where you left off.
There's still support for the co-editing tools that arrived with Office 2010, but most document collaboration is asynchronous, and Microsoft has made it easier to share and comment on documents. There's support for inline comment replies and the ability to treat a comment as a to-do, and mark it as completed, greying it out. There's also support for sharing documents using the online presentation service introduced with PowerPoint 2010. Choose Present Online and send a link to your colleagues, and when you scroll through the document on your PC, your actions will be repeated in their browsers.
Perhaps the most useful new editing feature is PDF reflow. Designed to make it easier to copy content from PDF files, Word 2013's reflow tools interpret the PDF file and construct a similar Word document, letting you copy and paste tables and other formatted content. This isn't a two-way process: once opened in Word, edited PDF files need to be recreated using Adobe's or Microsoft's tools.
One thing to note: Office 2013 introduces new file formats, so we'd recommend using the compatibility options with the preview code.
Excel has formed the heart of Microsoft's business intelligence functionality for some time, and Excel 2013 gets a whole range of new tools to help you sort, lay out and analyse your data. Many of the new features are related to new functionality in — especially around the tools for working with the new reporting features.
One of the more useful features is Flash Fill, a technique that automatically formats pasted and manually entered data. If you're adding data to a column, but haven't explicitly used data formatting, Flash Fill will interpret your choices and automatically apply an appropriate format to additional content. The Quick Analysis lens helps you find new ways of displaying your data, and a Recommended chart tool helps you choose the correct chart for your data. Other visualisation techniques, like chart animations, make it easier to understand the effects of your data.
Data analysis can be hard, especially when choosing the right Pivot Table for your data. Like the chart selection tools, you can get a preview of different Pivot Table options. The ProPlus version also gains tools for quickly exploring large datasets, and for quickly extracting trends from your data. There's also support for the new Power View visual report designer.
One common feature across many of the Office 2013 products is a new Office Start screen. Reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen, Office's version gives you quick access to themes and to templates — an approach that works well in a tool like PowerPoint, helping you find an appropriate style for a presentation.
Metro is all about design, and there are a lot of new features in PowerPoint that are intended to help you deliver well-designed presentations. Guidelines can be set in a master slide, helping give all your slides a consistent look and feel. You can also use an eyedropper to grab colours from a picture, and mke them the basis for the colours in a theme. If you've linked Facebook or Flickr to a Microsoft account, there's now a direct link from your online galleries into PowerPoint, giving you another source for images in slides — and without having to make local copies of your pictures.
Designing slides is only part of the story, of course. PowerPoint also gains a new presenter view, with tools for quickly navigating between slides (without showing the entire deck to your audience), and the ability to zoom in to diagrams and charts. Decks are automatically uploaded to the cloud, making them easier to share and present — as well as giving you access to your work wherever you have an internet connection.
Outlook's new blue icon takes some getting used to. However, it's also a sign that this is the most changed application in the suite. Not only does Outlook get significant user interface upgrades, there's also a lot of change under the surface, with support for new mail transport mechanisms (including Exchange ActiveSync) and tools that aim to make Outlook not just a mail client, but also a collaboration hub. Outlook 2013 not only builds on previous versions of Outlook, but also the Metro mail and contacts applications built into Windows Phone.
Some of the changes are simple, like the ability to reply to mail without leaving the message reading plane. Others just make things easier, with the ability to quickly peek at calendars and contacts, and a new text-based navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. The contacts tool in Outlook will now link the various identities for contacts into single people cards, making it easier to send mail to the right address — and bringing in social information for added context. The new weather bar in the calendar view may seem a little whimsical, but it actually makes it easier to plan activities: you can decide what's needed for the day, or whether you should schedule an event for outdoors or indoors.
Site mailboxes are an interesting new feature that link Outlook, Exchange and SharePoint. A single email folder can be used to link all the members of a team, giving them one place to receive team messages and to store documents.
Microsoft has tweaked the way Outlook's offline cache works, making it easier to work with large mailboxes on devices with SSDs. So instead of having to download an entire mailbox, you can choose to just have a few months or a few years. Searches will use both online and offline content, much like the Windows Phone mail client. Support for EAS means that you can use Outlook with more mail services, including Gmail.
If you've used some Outlook 2010 features like Quick Steps, you might find them harder to use, especially when the ribbon is collapsed. Quick Steps, for example, now reside two levels down in a hierarchical menu, making them difficult to use on a touch device.
Still one of the most overlooked Office components, OneNote 2013 may finally get the users it so richly deserves. As well as the familiar note-taking tools, OneNote adds tools for embedding files and documents into your notebooks. You can use a OneNote notebook to manage all the documents needed for a project — and if they're Excel or Visio files they'll automatically update so you can see changes. Notes can also be tied to meetings, using Outlook and Lync, so you can quickly pull up meeting notes or embedded annotated presentations from your calendar.
One of OneNote's weak spots has been its table support. It's always been easy to create tables using the Tab key, but harder to navigate them. You can now add headers, and even convert a table into an embedded Excel spreadsheet, with the ability to add visualisations and analytics.
Microsoft is also launching a Metro-style version of OneNote (OneNote on Windows 8), which uses the same note database as its desktop equivalent. You'll be able to use the Metro OneNote on Windows RT tablets, either to quickly get data into OneNote or as a standalone note-taking tool that uploads data into the cloud — for use on PCs, phones and other tablets.
The other members of the Office suite all get a revamp in Office 2013. Some, like Access and InfoPath, seem less relevant now the tools for Metro application development are built into Windows 8, but still get updates for the Metro world. Updates include new Metro templates for Access' web application development tools. Publisher adds improved mail-merge tools, so you can use it to create personalised mailings and documents; you can also convert entire documents into JPEG format to simplify printing.
A new Office for a new Microsoft
Microsoft is making a series of big bets with its 2012 releases. The most obvious is Metro, but more significant are the changes Microsoft is making to its licensing. You'll still be able to buy Office 2013 as a standalone product, but it's also going to be available as a download, purchased as a subscription alongside a new consumer and small business version of the Office 365 cloud service. It will also take advantage of the SkyDrive cloud synchronisation tools built into Windows 8 — and available as a download for phones, tablets and devices running desktop OSs.
The new Office 365 partner licensing terms introduced at this year's Worldwide Partner Conference will make these changes more acceptable to the channel, with Office now able to give partners recurring revenue. SaaS (Software as a Service) has made subscription software more palatable to businesses, and by bundling Office with its cloud services Microsoft has made it more likely that they will take advantage of Office 2013's subscription terms. Consumer acceptance is another question, and one we'll watch with interest.
Cloud integration goes right to the heart of Office, with files saved automatically to both your machine and Microsoft's cloud services (SkyDrive for consumers and SharePoint Online for business users). There's something surprisingly liberating about knowing that you can access your files anywhere — and with Office On Demand, even with your usual tools. The cloud is also at the heart of Office's collaboration features, which build on the tools introduced in Office 2010 to make collaboration much easier to use, for both co-editing and for asynchronous document collaboration.
We were initially sceptical about the chromeless Metro look-and-feel, especially on our Windows 7 test system. However we found that collapsing the ribbon gave us plenty of screen real estate for our documents — especially when using a full screen. The plain white colour scheme also minimises distractions, leaving you to focus on your content.
After a week of using Office 2013 we're pleasantly surprised. The changes Microsoft has made to support Windows 8 — and specifically Windows 8 tablets — are logical, and they work well with more traditional ways of using Office. The result is a design that makes it easy to focus on work, rather than drowning in extraneous information. Office is first and foremost a productivity suite, and Office 2013 looks set to make users more productive without requiring them to learn new ways of working, even on new kinds of devices. That's a win in anyone's book.