July 16, 2012 at 3:06 PM ET
On the eve of the Windows 8 launch, it's no surprise that Microsoft is revealing its next Office suite. What may surprise you is that Office 2013 is not really designed for Windows 8. It's a suite with many remarkable enhancements, but it is not finger friendly.
As Steve Ballmer took the stage in San Francisco Monday to unveil the newest flagship apps, Microsoft was not yet sharing details of pricing or availability for the new suite, but the company did brief me on some particulars of its distribution, along with sharing a demo tablet containing a fully functional preview version of Office 2013 software, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and a load of subsidiary apps such as OneNote and Lync.
Microsoft will be selling them in the usual bundles for home, school and business use, but will also, for the first time, extend the Office 365 subscription to consumers. That means that, for a fixed monthly or annual fee, you will be able to access the latest Microsoft Office software on the Web, and download it on any device, including Macs and PCs, and whatever mobile devices where an Office software suite is currently available.
What Microsoft has not shared yet is news of a tablet-friendly Office designed for touch-controlled Windows 8 tablets, let alone an edition for iPads. (The next Office for Mac has not been revealed either.) When I discussed the matter with Chris Pratley, the general manager of Microsoft's Office Labs, he told me that it will take time for his team to work out how to best design for the finger interface, and that consumer and business subscribers to the 365 service would immediately benefit from any updates — especially if those updates are rolled out for multiple devices at once.
Though this may come as a disappointment to some, the Office 2013 suite itself is impressive in design and execution, so let's take a look at some of its key features, which I've demonstrated in this video:
As you can see from this brief overview, one of the chief design directives for Pratley's team was to eliminate the faux "chrome" that clutters software -- the fake buttons, bars and gutters. Overall, Office is more elegant, and the visual design remained after the streamline is more apt to be relevant to your needs.
I said it wasn't finger friendly and it really isn't, but this aspect of the redesign jives with the overall "Metro" design mentality of Windows 8. When a tablet-optimized version does appear, it will no doubt look very similar.
Microsoft also touts the new Office as being very much integrated with the cloud, particularly accessing and even collaborating on documents stored in the SkyDrive (which offers substantial free storage if you have a Hotmail account or other Windows Live access). I can say that I did enjoy manipulating documents, tossing them to my SkyDrive from one computer, then pulling them up on the tablet to manipulate. I do think the near future will bring independence from local storage for basic documents. However, there are pitfalls, like trying to reach a document on Microsoft's SkyDrive when your connection is spotty.
Here are some of the new features (some of which I demonstrate in the video above):
PDF "reflow" - The frustration of dealing with these uneditable PDFs is over. The new version of Word lets you open PDFs as if they were Word docs, even intelligently translating tables and other text formatting for you to easily edit.
Read view - Acknowledging that many Word documents are sent to you not to edit but just to read, Microsoft has created a very fluid Read view. Here's one thing that is finger-friendly: page turn tap buttons appear on either side of the tablet, so that you can scroll through a document without lifting a finger (too much).
Presenter view - I am not a big PowerPoint junkie, but even I value the benefit of this Presenter view, which shows you what your audience can see, along with a timer and a spot for notes. You can even zoom and pan, or use a pen to highlight things in each slide.
In-line replies - I have never understood why you have to pop out an email to reply to it in Outlook, and now you don't have to. Click Reply, and a little room for your response appears at the top of the document, without having to reorient your eyes.
"Peek" at calendar, etc. - Another thing I don't like about current Outlook is the need to jump into the Calendar. I just want to glance at it, or well, "peek" at it, and now I can. Hover over the calendar icon with your mouse, and you get a nice tidy look ahead that's gone as soon as you know what's ahead.
Weather bar - If you configure your Outlook a certain way, you can keep at-a-glance weather information on top of your calendar. Cool trick: If you are traveling and input your geographical data correctly, the weather forecast will sync to wherever you're going, so you can plan ahead.
People cards/social connectors - One of the coolest things about Windows Phone and Windows 8 is the emphasis on people, and the fact that they have multiple email addresses, social accounts, phone numbers, mailing addresses and all that. The People cards, which are compatible across all of the next-gen Microsoft software, give you control to that, in an application that requires hardcore people-juggling.
Recommended charts - One of the neatest things to hit Office from the labs of Microsoft Research, this feature looks at highlighted data and, on the fly, mocks up a bunch of different charts and tables for it. With so many options, you're bound to find the one chart you actually want, which would have taken you hours to work your way to if you're not an Excel ninja.
"Flash Fill" autocomplete - If you have a tablet with a lot of garbled data and you're trying to clean it up by hand, the Flash Fill function will look at what data you already have, study patterns in the text, and try to lend a hand by guessing what you're going to type. (I realize this is a vague explanation, but trust me, it's a cool feature, especially if you import data into Excel and have to mess with it a lot. Hopefully the image below gives you some idea of what I mean.)
You can get a preview copy for testing at office.com.