Today’s release of Office 2016 marks almost three years since the last major version of Microsoft’s productivity apps. More than 1.2 billion people use Office, for everything from simple word processing and personal finances, to powerful number crunching at large enterprises. It’s as ubiquitous as Windows itself, and before today’s new update it was already packed full with features. So, do you really need the latest version?
Microsoft believes that you do — but more importantly, it wants you to get on the new way of thinking about Microsoft software: constantly updated, available in the cloud, and getting new features all the time. But that vision will take time to pan out. Right now you should make your choice to switch based on whether or not you really want the new features.
Microsoft has been slowly refining Office over the past few versions, and the 2016 release takes that a step further. While Office 2013 focused on storing your documents in the cloud and introducing some touch improvements, Office 2016 is really designed to make sharing a lot easier across all your devices. Office is no longer restricted to your desktop PC or laptop, it’s everywhere. I can create an Office document from my PC and then edit on my phone or tablet, and not have to worry about moving the file manually onto those devices. Never before has this been so seamless, and Office 2016 embraces the cloud fully.
Office 2016 is all about the cloud
When you first start up any of the latest Office apps you’ll be hard pressed to actually find what’s new. For example, Excel only has one notable change: six new chart types. There are a few visual changes and tweaks and a new gray theme that matches the dark look of Windows 10 very well. Other than that, all the features of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are in largely the same place as they’ve always been. Office 2007 was the last major change to the look and feel of Office thanks to the Ribbon UI, and Microsoft hasn’t made any drastic changes in Office 2010. If you’re used to working in Office, then the 2016 version won’t break your workflow.
But there are new features to be found, and the best of them happen to be in Office’s most popular app, Word. If you’re creating a résumé or an angry letter of complaint, then it’s the tool of choice. Microsoft has made Word a little more intelligent this time around, with some new features that are helpful, rather than flashy additions you never use again. Clippy hasn’t returned to haunt your documents, but the new Tell Me feature makes use of the helpful parts of Clippy to act as an assistant without the annoying distractions. Tell Me lets you simply search for the feature or task you’re looking for and it brings the option up. If you’re struggling to find how to insert a chart, just search for "how do I insert a chart" or something equally relevant, and the option is immediately revealed. I used it a few times when the vast array of features and options in Office got overwhelming, so it’s a minor but welcome addition.
Microsoft is also making more use of Bing in Office 2016. A smart lookup feature lets you search for items in documents or emails to fact check or find the meaning of a phrase. Previous versions of Office have had similar functionality, but this feels a little more refined and easy to use. I still reach to my browser and Google stuff though, so I doubt this will be helpful for most people.
Word's real-time co-authoring is a solid addition
But the biggest addition in Word is real-time co-authoring. For the first time in a desktop version of Word, you can now see what others are typing in real time when multiple people are editing a document stored on one of Microsoft’s cloud services. This has been previously reserved only for web versions of Office, and used widely on Google Docs. It makes a big difference being able to see what a co-worker is changing in a document, with the ability to quickly message them on Skype to advise them not to make a particular change before they’ve wasted time doing it.
If you’re used to the web version or Google Docs then there’s a slight difference with Word’s implementation. If you’re working with a co-worker on a document then you can’t both edit the same line as it locks the other person out. I usually like fooling around with Docs online when multiple people are editing, but this locking prevented me from playing the fool. That’s probably a good thing for my co-workers, though. I now can’t imagine going back to a version of Office without this live editing, and I’m hoping future versions bring this feature to other office apps (it’s only available in Word right now).
Alongside the big real-time editing addition, Office 2016 also includes a new version history side panel. If you’ve ever been working on a document that multiple people edit then you’ve probably come across the situation where someone totally screws up everyone’s hard work. Version history is now easy to access, and you can quickly restore an old version in seconds.
It often feels like I use email every hour of every day, and nothing has really stemmed the flow of messages over the years. Microsoft has been tweaking Outlook to keep it modern over the years, but even in Office 2016 it still feels a little out of date. Outlook 2016 is primarily aimed at Exchange ActiveSync compatible services like Outlook.com or Office 365, but if you use Google Apps or Gmail then you’ll just get basic IMAP email support and no ability to bring in contacts (CardDAV) or calendar items (CalDAV). Microsoft has moved to support these protocols in the built-in mail app for Windows 10 in a seamless way, but they’re bizarrely missing in the messy setup options for Outlook 2016. Basically, Outlook 2016 is great for Exchange users and terrible for everybody else.
Thankfully, there are some interesting additions to Outlook 2016 that make email less daunting. Microsoft has added a clever way to manage attachments in Outlook. If you’ve used a OneDrive document recently, then you can attach it without ever seeing a file dialog. It’s simply available from a recents dropdown when you go to attach a document. The clever trick here is that if the document is stored on OneDrive or other Microsoft cloud services then it won’t be attached to the email, and a link will be sent instead. This is a trick that Google and Dropbox have both toyed with, but it feels more natural in Outlook. For Office shops, it saves precious storage space for recipients, but also makes it easier to use the sharing and collaboration features Microsoft has created.
Outlook needs to go beyond Exchange support
Microsoft is also adding an email organization tool called Clutter. It prioritizes your email and clears low priority messages into a separate folder. I’m not generally a fan of this type of automatic triage of my email, and Microsoft’s Outlook for iOS has a similar Focused Inbox feature. If you like having an email app organize your messages for you, both seem to do decent jobs of it — except that they don’t talk to each other at all about what email is going where. It feels like both of these features should be linked, but they’re separate implementations of email management right now.
Email isn’t the only form of communication in Office 2016. If you’re using the apps at work then you’ll likely start using Skype for Business (formerly known as Lync). Much like regular Skype, you can do voice or video calls and screen sharing in addition to the traditional Lync features like calendar scheduling. The only thing that’s really missing is a good group chat tool. Skype for Business has the ability to create group chats, but it feels like an add-on rather than a core feature. At The Verge we use Slack, and Microsoft has nothing in Office 2016 that comes close to matching either its simplicity or its usefulness. I found myself longing for the distraction of Slack when working on documents. I’m so used to jumping into our chat channel in Slack, and not having that when you’re working remotely feels a little isolating.
One of the new apps to really embrace the idea of sharing and cloud-powered documents is Sway. It’s a new addition to the Office lineup, and it’s the most impressive change to this latest version of Office. In its most basic form, Sway allows anyone to create a beautiful website from just images and text without any effort. I’ve created fun websites for my vacation photos on several occasions, and Sway makes it very easy to create something pretty in minutes. It’s all web-based too, so you don’t actually need an application to access Sway. You can insert pictures, videos, tweets, and charts so there are plenty of options. It’s an interesting blend of Word and PowerPoint that creates an interactive webpage as the end result. You don’t even need Office to try it out — it’s all available online, free of charge.
Overall, the Office 2016 desktop apps don’t really present many compelling additions by themselves. Most of the changes are minor compared to what we got in Office 2013 three years ago. Microsoft hasn’t attempted to combine touch, typing, and inking into a single app this time around. Instead, there are separate Windows 10 "mobile" apps that are designed for tablets and phones. It seems a bit crazy to have two versions of the same app, but it’s largely because these desktop apps are already powerful and it will take some time to transition all of those features into the touch-friendly versions.
Sway is the most interesting addition to Office 2016
What’s really interesting about this latest version of Office is the Office 365 subscription and the ability to work on documents on my Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, and Android tablet. If you just look at the relatively sparse upgrades to the desktop apps, it hardly seems worth the upgrade. But if you consider that a subscription to Office 365 puts you on a permanent upgrade track and lets you use Office on basically any device you can think of, the calculus gets much more interesting. Office 365 can cost anywhere from $5 to $12.50 per month, so each business and consumer will need to do some math before subscribing.
The real value comes with the other apps that are available to you with an Office 365 subscription. Lightweight mobile versions for Windows 10 are a favorite of mine as they’re so quick to load and have most of the basic editing features you need. These same apps are nearly identical to the ones found on Android tablets and the iPad. Editing documents on these apps is basic, but it’s enough if all you need to do is a few sums in Excel or letters in Word. Anything more and you can pick up the desktop apps on Windows and Mac as part of Office 365. I’ve found that the recent tab is familiar on all Office apps across multiple platforms, so I don’t even have to worry about which folder on OneDrive I stored a document as it’s always there in the list to open straight away.
What Office 2016 really represents is the future of how Microsoft will deliver software. Don’t expect major big releases every three years anymore. Much like Windows 10, Office is moving to an era where there are minor improvements on a regular basis, with a focus on sharing and cloud features. If you’re using Office at work, the 2016 release will really tie these together nicely, and at home there’s OneDrive and Office apps for all your devices. By focusing less on improving the already full featured desktop Office apps for 2016, it feels like Microsoft has spent most of its time making sure Office works well everywhere you want to use it. We’re going to see a lot more of that in the future, and I welcome the change of focus.
For the past 20 years, Office has been ubiquitous. It’s been like the air that business people breathe: everywhere, necessary, sometimes fresh and sometimes a little stale. But in that time, the web and mobile devices from Apple and Android have also become ubiquitous. With Office 2016 and Office 365, the everywhere Office suite is finally everywhere again, instead of just living on Windows PCs. Being everywhere is great.