Microsoft's Office 2013 reaches its public Customer Preview milestone today, available for end users to test on Windows 7 and Windows 8 PCs. Microsoft is calling its Office 2013 suite, codenamed Office 15, a "modern" version of the software that is used on a billion PCs worldwide. Cloud-connected and designed to work well on Windows 8 tablets, Office 2013 signals a shift to document collaboration and anywhere any device access. Notably, Microsoft is introducing an on-demand subscription version of Office 2013 that can be streamed from any Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC, with the ability to sync settings and documents. With strong competition from Google Apps and Apple’s iCloud storage and iPad hardware, how does Microsoft plan to keep Office 2013 desktop software and its cloud offerings relevant in a multi device era? Read on to find out.
Cloud-powered Office 2013
Perhaps the biggest change to Office 2013 isn't the way it looks or its features, but rather the way documents are delivered along with some important under-the-hood changes. Microsoft is really pushing the ability to create a Word document on a Windows PC and edit it on a Windows Phone, Windows 8 tablet, or any Windows 7- or Windows 8-based PC with an internet connection. Home users can store documents in Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage and businesses can use a range of the company's SharePoint offerings. Office 2013’s big innovation is its ability to let users stream a full-featured version of Office to a PC with personal settings intact — an on-demand Office suite whenever you require it. This is a big step from previous versions of Office that included cloud-based storage options, but never really tied them together into one neat package.
Office on demand is a powerful aspect to Microsoft's Office 2013 subscription offering, providing a way to access a full version of Office wherever you are. The service lets you stream a full-featured Office application to any internet-connected PC running Windows 7 and Windows 8, providing access to the settings and documents you use regularly. Simply put, you can sign in to a streaming version of Office at a friend’s PC and finish a document; the app will then be removed from the PC once it's closed. This all requires an Office 365 Home Premium subscription, but its ease-of-use makes it a compelling prospect for users who are comfortable using Microsoft's Office suite and require more document editing functionality than Google Docs or Microsoft's own Office Web Apps provide. Despite this, you can still opt to simply buy a standalone version of the Office 2013 desktop software and utilize SkyDrive as an online storage hub for documents. You won't get the streaming Office 2013 apps, but you'll benefit from the cloud and avoid having to pay a subscription fee.
Microsoft is offering a number of different Office 2013 editions aimed at home users and businesses. Office 365, the company's software plus services platform for Office, will power Office 2013 as a subscription service for those who want to avoid the up-front costs of a perpetual license and take advantage of some of the on-demand features. Available in Home Premium, Small Business Premium, Pro Plus, and Enterprise — Office 365 has a variety of offerings that are flexible based on needs, but like many of its other products there’s still no one size that fits all. The new Home Premium product allows a family to install Office 2013 on up to five PCs and get an additional 20GB of online SkyDrive storage to share documents online. Home Premium includes access to Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher through an Internet-connected Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC. Documents and settings, and even the actual apps will roam across whatever PC you choose to use Office 365 with. Other editions, like ProPlus and above, include additional user accounts and access to apps like InfoPath and Lync — designed for businesses. Office 365 will also include access to Office for Mac.
A hint of Metro
At first glance you won't notice a huge visual change across Office 2013 applications. The ribbon is still present in each app and my install presented it by default upon first launch. An emphasis on a clean and Metro style user interface is present, and the apps particularly fit well inside Windows 8, despite the fact they run in the desktop mode. A new Start experience offers a similar look and feel to previous versions of Office, but appears to be simplified in offering previous documents and templates. Microsoft has added an account sign in option on the right-hand side of its Office 2013 apps, providing access to some third-party linked account data, such as Flickr or LinkedIn, and the option to store documents in the SkyDrive cloud. Similar to Windows 8, Microsoft is also allowing Office 2013 users to customize the background of its Office toolbar with various style options.
A Touch Mode feature is present in each Office 2013 application, but it does very little. Although hit targets become larger, making it slightly easier to navigate with touch, and it's easy to navigate or type data in documents, the feature feels a little gimmicky and is hidden away from immediate view. Microsoft's Office team appear to have taken a similar approach to that of its Windows counterparts. Windows 7 shipped with some similar touch improvements, but overall it wasn't easy to use as the targets were designed for mouse and keyboard use. Office 2013 feels identical to this, it's often difficult to tap ribbon items or items in documents, it feels clunky and not something I'd recommend. Office 2013 is still primarily a keyboard- and mouse-driven interface.
Full PDF support out of the box
Microsoft is focusing on improved ways to read Word documents in its 2013 version. Word’s new onscreen Read Mode reflows text automatically in columns to fit a particular device screen, which makes it easier to read documents on the move. The full screen mode works equally well by removing all the distractions typically created by the various toolbars and options in Word. Both views let you scroll horizontally to read a Word document on a Windows 8 tablet, and there’s a pinch-to-zoom implementation for text. An Object Zoom feature also lets you zoom in and create tables, charts, and images in documents whilst filling the screen.
PDF support is also greatly improved in Office 2013, allowing users to natively open PDF documents and reflow them into Word documents. Initially, documents will open in a Protected View, but an enable editing button lets you modify the content and save the document as a PDF again. Decades later, Word PDF editing still isn’t perfect, but if you're looking for an editable Word document from a PDF then it works well.
One of the nicest cloud features in Word 2013 is a Resume Reading option that automatically bookmarks the last position in a document and syncs it across different PCs or tablets. Resume Reading requires a Microsoft SkyDrive account, but it works without any configuration required. Signing into an Office 2013 app with a Microsoft account reveals options to save documents to services like Flickr or SkyDrive. If you're signed in then documents are saved to the SkyDrive by default.
Other document layout improvements include a new alignment guide to correctly line up charts, photos, and diagrams with Word 2013 text. A new live layout tool also lets you preview how photos, videos, and shapes will align in documents as you drag them through various pages.
Embed web video in word documents
Online video is now supported in Word 2013, so content that has been embedded into a document is playable within the doc providing an internet connection is present. You can add video from Bing Video, YouTube, or by using a video embed code. I found that the videos played in Flash for me rather than HTML5 video. For easy document reading, the new expand and collapse option lets users collapse paragraphs in read mode with a tap or click. Word 2013 has also added a bunch of collaborative features, including the ability to present a document online. The presenting feature lets users, who don’t have to have Word installed, view a document as if it was a presentation where the presenter can scroll through the document and a viewer can follow. It's similar to the existing implementation in PowerPoint 2010.
A staple in businesses worldwide, Excel already feels like it has an overwhelming amount of features that even your office Excel whiz may have barely scratched the surface of, but Microsoft is adding a few more in Excel 2013. Flash fill is perhaps one of the biggest improvements to make Excel easier. The option will reformat and rearrange data automatically based on your own use of Excel 2013 and auto-complete remaining data with no formulas or macros required. During my use I didn't find that it was perfect every time but on the formatting side it certainly helped to keep a document consistent.
A new Quick Trend feature will provide a chart that analyzes historical time series data, and a new Excel Add-in scans spreadsheets for errors, broken links, and inconsistencies. The scanner will be particularly useful for auditors or system admins who want to move documents to new locations without having to worry about breaking existing links.
Other improvements include new ways to visualize data from Excel spreadsheets. Quick Analysis Lens suggests ways to present data and a recommended charts feature automatically suggests the best type of chart based on data patterns. Chart animations will also provide a visual way to see how data is moving in a chart as the changes are applied. Microsoft is also enabling Apps for Excel integration, codenamed Agaves, that allow developers to create custom add-ons that mash together data from Excel sheets with web data. The web extensions are available in other apps, but the primary use is clearly intended for Excel power users and organizations. Like Word 2013, Excel 2013 will also support a Present Online feature to share workbooks over the web in real time. Two new features, only available in Office Professional Plus and above, include Quick Explore — a way to perform cross-tab analysis of large datasets — and Power View — a way to compile data, charts, and graphs into a single view.
Apps for Excel web integration
Presenter View improved for touch
PowerPoint, the fail-safe for office workers and students worldwide, is getting a few important updates to help presenters in a world of social networks and multi-screen devices. One interesting change is the ability to now insert pictures from Facebook, Flickr, and other services directly into PowerPoint 2013 without having to save them first. The feature works by association with a Microsoft account and sign in process through PowerPoint 2013. You can insert pictures through SkyDrive, SharePoint, Office.com Clip Art, or even images from Bing's search engine — but there’s no way to insert an image from a URL.
Presenting in PowerPoint 2013 feels a lot easier thanks to an improved Presenter View. If you're using a second screen, as many do with projectors, then the updated view lets you control what's shown to viewers while keeping an eye on notes and the next slide due. Audiences only see the slide that's presented, but there's an option to swap displays if required. An Auto-extend feature makes sure that any additional screens are detected and that the Presenter View is projected onto the correct screen automatically.
Like other Office 2013 apps, PowerPoint 2013 features the new Start screen with a variety of wide-screen themes to pick for presentations. Theme variants let you change the style of a presentation easily even after a general theme has been applied , and an eyedropper feature allows you to pick a color from elsewhere to match your document. Microsoft is also supporting additional video formats in PowerPoint 2013, and the ability to have music and sound play across several slides or the entire presentation. However, unlike Word 2013, there’s no insert online videos option. Resume Reading is also supported in PowerPoint 2013 when signed into SkyDrive, and Present Online is included.
Outlook 2013 contains the most significant improvements to the core Office 2013 applications. New Exchange ActiveSync account support brings Hotmail and other popular email services with true push support to Outlook 2013. Exchange ActiveSync support is important for consumers. Outlook has previously supported POP and IMAP accounts, but while this support is sufficient for mail — calendars and contacts would not auto sync. The introduction of Exchange ActiveSync support means you can now benefit from having Contacts, Mail, and Calendar appointments synced in Outlook without the need for a full Exchange server — taking advantage of many popular email services. I wasn’t able to get this working with my personal Gmail account, but other Gmail accounts worked and Hotmail worked fine. Microsoft says the feature is a little buggy in the initial code, which could explain my inability to setup my personal account.
The familiar Outlook social integration from 2010 is still present, but Facebook and LinkedIn are both baked in this time. Outlook's navigation bar is now compact by default too on the left-hand side, with some quick options to respond, delete, move, flag, and mark as unread on the right-hand side. Like other apps, the Ribbon is still present in Outlook 2013, but unpinning it makes Outlook feel a lot less cluttered and yet still very functional.
Outlook includes the most improvements to Office 2013
A new Peeks feature lets you take a look at your schedule or a specific appointment with a contact without having to go into each individual section of Outlook 2013. Microsoft is also supporting inline replies for quicker emailing and the company continues to support conversation view, although, like Outlook 2010, it's still disabled by default. To surface more information in mail items, there's also a MailTips feature that shows you if someone is out of the office, if you're sending mail externally, or if you forgot to attach a document — all helping to avoid common mistakes.
Microsoft has also added a Weather bar to the Calendar view in Outlook 2013. You can add multiple locations and get a brief overview of three days worth of weather before you create a new appointment. It's a nice addition, but as a standalone bar it feels rather pointless unless you like to glance at the weather forecast regularly. I would prefer to see this type of integration within calendar appointments to see the weather at destinations.
OneNote desktop and Metro style apps for Windows 8
Microsoft is approaching its digital notebook, OneNote, a little differently this time around. Although OneNote will ship as a 2013 desktop app, the company is also introducing a Metro style Windows 8 OneNote version to accompany versions for Windows Phone, iOS, and Android. I haven’t been able to test this Metro version ahead of time, but the interface includes touch-and-hold radial menus for easier use on touch-based devices. OneNote for Windows 8 also features one-tap search and sharing features and finger-friendly zoom options.
On the desktop version side, there’s some touch improvements like the rest of the Office 2013 applications, but you’ll want the Windows 8 version for that type of note taking. A fullscreen mode takes the ribbon away and turns OneNote 2013 into a simple note-taking app. Auto-updating file views are now present in OneNote 2013, allowing users to preview content within a notebook without opening separate apps. Microsoft has also improved its table support in OneNote 2013, allowing users to convert them into embedded Excel spreadsheets.
Office 2013 feels like a stop gap between what’s really next for Office innovation, an attempt to fend off Google’s increasing popularity in small and medium-sized businesses. Most of the app improvements feel rather minor, with the exception of PowerPoint and Outlook, but it seems that Microsoft has finally pulled together its cloud strategy around Windows, Office, and SkyDrive — something that’s vital in the ecosystems battle with Google and Apple. Although Microsoft launched its own cloud storage before iCloud and Google Drive, its consumer message was confusing and separated with no ease-of-use. With Office 2013, documents and settings can be stored in the cloud and the apps streamed to Windows 7 and 8 desktops — a powerful move away from the traditional versions of Office that supported some of this functionality, but in a way that puts the experience first, and pushing the complicated technology behind it into the background.
Microsoft is targeting its Office 2013 suite at businesses, no doubt, but consumers will see the benefits of its improvements in the form of Windows RT tablets (which includes some of the Office 2013 apps). The company isn’t announcing pricing for its new Office 365 Home Premium service, but if it’s relatively low-cost then it could tempt some consumers who typically opt for a boxed copy. One critical aspect here, though, is that these applications are designed for the desktop; they’re best used primarily with a mouse and keyboard.
Touch improvements aren't great, but cloud integration is
The touch experience isn’t great from my own testing on Windows 8 Release Preview, and it feels all too familiar to Windows 7 — a first stab at touch improvements on desktop software. Microsoft’s Office division has taken a similar approach, by increasing touch targets, but it seems that any truly touch-optimized versions of Office will come as Metro style apps, if anything at all. It’s clearly difficult to create a fully functional touch-based word processor or spreadsheet with legacy support, and Microsoft hasn’t cracked it yet. Reading and Touch Mode work well if you just want to look over documents on a tablet device, but editing is a mixed affair — especially when, like other tablet devices, the onscreen keyboard takes up 50 percent of the screen space.
Overall, Office 2013 represents a big leap forward on the cloud side, but if you’re an average Office 2010 home user then there might not be enough here to make you rush out and upgrade. On the other hand, the improved support for collaboration through Office 365 or Present Online and App extension support will be of particular interest to business and enterprise users. If you, like many office workers, live in Outlook then the 2013 upgrade might be worth it alone — especially if you want to sync Mail, Contacts, and Calendars from Hotmail or other services. Meanwhile, the world awaits a rumored Office for iPad release and any future hints at Metro style Office apps. Microsoft is entering an age of Metro in 2013, but its Office division is still lagging behind on its touch story and any innovation it could bring to truly improve the touch experience for productivity apps like Office. Luckily, there’s no solid competition for Office yet on emerging touch-based devices. The clock is ticking.
David Pierce and Aaron Souppouris contributed to this feature.