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Microsoft through the years has earned a reputation for being stodgy and dull, but deep down inside, Redmond's a gambler. How else can you explain the company's decision to essentially bet the farm on Windows 8--a radical redesign of the world's dominant desktop computer operating system--to create a one-size-fits-all user interface for PCs, tablets, and phones? The new Office 2013, the latest version of Microsoft's (again dominant) productivity suite, is part of that risky strategy.
Office 2013, which won't ship until sometime next year, at unannounced prices, isn't as bold a departure from its predecessor as Windows 8 compared to Windows 7. The familiar Office Ribbon--love it or hate it--is still the primary means of navigation in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office programs. But the Ribbon has adopted a flatter, no-nonsense look inspired by Windows 8's Metro apps. And many of Office 2013's innovations are geared towards multi-touch tablets, including finger and stylus controls that may help spur Office's migration to mobile devices, where Microsoft is just another also-ran behind dominant players Apple (iOS) and Google (Android).
Here's another decidedly mobile move: Office Home and Student 2013 RT, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, will come with ARM-based Windows 8 devices, including the recently announced Microsoft Surface slate.
Despite the mobile focus, there's plenty of cool stuff in Office 2013 for desktop users. Topping the list is the tight integration of Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service, which saves Office files online and syncs them across multiple digital devices. For business users there's Office's new integration with recently acquired Microsoft properties, including Skype and the Yammer social network. And Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote have a few several compelling enhancements too, although not enough to warrant an upgrade on their own.
So what's Microsoft's game plan with Office 2013? To battle the consumerization of IT, writes Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz in a Monday blog post:
"For a long time Microsoft ruled the knowledge worker part of the IT seas with impunity. They have fended off attacks from the expected folks like IBM and Oracle rather handily. Then the consumerization wave hit. Turns out the danger came not from a frontal assault from another battleship, but from a huge array of small pirates. Knowledge worker eyeballs that always belonged to Microsoft strayed to Evernote, Dropbox, Box, Jive, Yammer, Google Apps, Confluence, you name it."
Is Office 2013 the right productivity suite for an increasingly mobile workforce? Click through the slideshow and draw your own opinions.
Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service has languished for years, but that will soon change with the arrival of Office 2013 and Windows 8. SkyDrive, in fact, is being positioned to play a key role in Office users' day-to-day computing lives. Office 2013 saves your documents to SkyDrive by default, enabling you to access files across multiple devices, including a smartphone and tablet. When you sign into Office, your personalized settings and recently used files are already there for you.
The new Office is available as a cloud-based subscription service too. Office 365, currently sold to businesses, will be available to home users as well. In addition to receiving future Office upgrades automatically, subscribers will get additional SkyDrive storage, multiple installs for several users, and added perks such as international calls via Skype. You'll also be able to stream Office apps to an Internet-connected Windows PC. Microsoft hasn't announcing pricing yet, but plans to do so this fall.
Office 2013 ventures beyond the mouse and keyboard to embrace touch and pen input. While multi-touch laptops aren't--and probably won't be--a mainstream choice for business and home users anytime soon, touch is an essential component of smartphones and tablets, obviously. The pen may be making a comeback too, judging by the popularity of Samsung's stylus-equipped Galaxy Note.
What kind of touch features does Office 2013 have? The same ones you've grown accustomed to using on your phone and tablet: Swipe a finger across the screen to turn a page; pinch and zoom to read documents; and write with a finger or stylus. And when you write an email by hand, Office 2013 automatically converts it to text.
Office 2013 conforms to Microsoft's "Metro" look that's pervasive across the software developer's latest mobile apps. Note the flatness of the Office Ribbon in Word 2013 (above) versus its predecessor in Word 2010. Much of Office's eye candy, including three-dimensional elements and the translucent Aero UI that provided a hazy peek at the Desktop behind the open program, is gone.
Don't care for the Office Ribbon? As with Office 2010, when you switch to full-screen model, the Ribbon vanishes. To retrieve it, simply click three small dots in the upper-right corner of the screen.
Hurrah! You can edit PDF files in Word 2013. Simply open a PDF as you would any other document. Word 2013 maintains the formatting of the file, which is fully editable. You can insert pictures and videos from online sites such as YouTube and Facebook as well. And readers can watch video clips from inside your document.
When you start Word, a right-side column shows your recently used documents. New users will see thumbnails of templates in the main window too. (More free templates are available online.) Word 2013's Read Mode, which reformats text into columns and lets you to flip through pages with a simple click or swipe of the screen, was clearly designed with tablets in mind.
Microsoft introduced Excel nearly three decades ago. Like most mature business apps, the venerable spreadsheet does what it does very well, and Redmond certainly doesn't want to rankle millions of Excel number-crunchers. Hence, no radical redesign is necessary.
Excel 2013 does offer some useful upgrades though, including new templates for budgets, calendars, forms, and reports. The new Quick Analysis Lens lets you convert data to a chart or table in a couple of steps. Flash Fill (above) recognizes patterns in your data and automatically fills cells accordingly. Say, for instance, you want to separate first and last names into separate columns. Simply begin typing the first names in a new column, press Ctrl+E, or click Data > Flash Fill, and Excel will copy the first names (in correct order) for you.
PowerPoint 2013 is a fine-tuned version of a seasoned productivity app. As before, the program steps you through the presentation-building process. It now sports an updated Start screen with a variety of new themes and color schemes. The enhanced Presenter View makes it easier to zoom in on a diagram, chart, or other detail that you want to emphasize to your audience. And the Navigation Guide lets you switch slides, even move out of sequence, from a grid that you can see but your audience can't.
PowerPoint's collaboration tools allow business colleagues to work from different PCs to build a single presentation. The Comments section makes it easy for participants to post and track their opinions too. And presentations are saved online by default to either SkyDrive or SharePoint.
Microsoft's OneNote note-taking app is well-suited to tablets, and the Office 2013 edition benefits greatly from the clean, Metro-style UI. It automatically saves your notes to SkyDrive--you don't have to click or tap "Save"--thereby making your brainstorming sessions readily available across your multiple devices running the OneNote app.
OneNote 2013 lets you grab screens (or portions thereof) and add them to your notebooks. It's too soon to tell, but OneNote may prove to be one of the most compelling apps for business users who migrate to stylus-equipped Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets.
Microsoft acquired Skype last year, and Office 2013 will be the first of Redmond's office suites to incorporate the popular VoIP service. You can integrate Skype contacts with Microsoft's enterprise-oriented Lync communications platform for calling and instant messaging. And Office subscribers get 60 minutes of Skype international calls each month. There's room for improvement, though. Skype integration doesn't appear to be a major priority in the preview version of Outlook 2013.
Office 2013's strong social networking component appears to be targeted mostly at Microsoft's huge installed base of enterprise users. In addition to Skype, Office now includes Yammer, a secure and private social network for businesses that Microsoft tentatively acquired just last month. Yammer integrates with SharePoint, Redmond's Web application platform, and Microsoft Dynamics, the company's line of CRM and enterprise resource planning apps.
Office 2013's People Card tool provides detailed information about your contacts, including their status updates from Facebook and LinkedIn. Now you'll know what your clients had for lunch--and perhaps whether they had lunch with your competitors.
(Image credit: Yammer.com)
Huge touchscreen displays aren't necessarily a feature of Office 2013, but the suite's stylus- and multi-touch-oriented UI enables it to work quite well with enormous LCD panels, such as Perceptive Pixel's 82-inch monster. PowerPoint presentations, particularly ones with embedded video, are a natural for large touch panels.
Educators may find large touchscreens useful too. A professor, for instance, could use OneNote in the classroom, jotting lecture notes and diagrams directly on a gigantic touchscreen; students could later access the notes via SkyDrive.
(Image credit: Perceptive Pixel)