Microsoft has always had the monopoly on the Office suite, and with reason. MS Office has been the quintessential standard for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations, while subsequently including numerous other tools that address office requirements. A generation of us have grown accustomed to their ubiquitous presence on our desktops or laptops. But the past couple of years, especially, have presented a series of significant trends that have challenged the way we create, manage and access our documents. Two of the most significant being:
- We are increasingly dependent on non-standard computing devices; smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks and the like.
- Web-based services have evolved and proliferated to the extent that storing files online using one device and accessing them from another completely different one is becoming a way of life; web mail, file sharing services etc.
Microsoft's new Office 2013 suite introduces several intriguing feature offerings and conceptual improvements to facilitate the way we will use and access our documents in this connected, device-agnostic world. After spending some time with their recently-released preview version of Office 2013, it is clear that Microsoft is laying huge importance on their Office 365 and SkyDrive cloud services by tightly integrating them with this new Office suite. As is to be expected, Office 2013 offers the tightest integration with their own cloud service, but it can also be used with other cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox etc.
When you eventually buy a boxed version of Office 2013, you will get to install it on one device as is traditionally the case. However, if you buy a subscription to their Office 365 service, you get licenses to download and install Office 2013 on up to five devices that could span different platforms. The result? You have access to all of your documents via your desktop, laptop, mobile and tablet. At the time of writing this, Office 2013 is only available for PCs and tablets running Windows 7 or Windows 8, but Microsoft states that an Office 2013 version will also be available for Mac. Also, so far as Microsoft's own operating systems go, Office 2013 will only work with Windows 7 and Windows 8--in a bold yet understandable move, this new suite will not be available for XP and Vista.
It is clear that the Windows 8 'Metro' interface and design is the foundation on which this new suite is created. After downloading and running the tiny setup file, Office 2013 downloads relevant components during the installation. You get to choose one of several elegant themes at the outset, and are asked to log into your Windows Live account (though this is optional.) After installation, I learned that none of the applications are completely installed on the system--these are 'streamed' to the computer and are downloaded as and when you click to use them. So there was a delay at first launch while the relevant applications, components and features were downloaded in the background.
Regarding the user interface, the now-familiar Office ribbon is still the mainstay of the experience. Small changes have been made to the size of buttons, fonts and such, but the overall layout is familiar. The real enhancements--and these are numerous--are under the hood in each of the suite's components.
- Restrict editing: You can now set up a document to restrict some or all of its features from being changed. For example, you can enable other users to only add comments, or prevent them only from making formatting changes, or force all subsequent changes to be tracked.
- A new Design menu item: This new entry on the ribbon brings all design-related functionality to one location. It contains buttons that enable changing document formatting (design styles, colors, fonts, paragraph specifications,) and page backgrounds (watermarks, page colors, borders etc.)
- Live layout and alignment guides: When you drag a page element like a text box or picture, you can easily align these to various parts of the page using guide markers that show up at the relevant positions.
- Simple markup view: This feature provides an uncluttered view of a document containing track changes--simply click the red line to the left of sentences that contain changes, and the changes are revealed. These changes can be folded away from view for easier document review.
- Insert online video and photos directly: Finally, you can now insert video and images from online sources without having to download them first. So you can insert a YouTube or Bing video in your document simply by inserting its address. However, this functionality requires a specific set of browsers and versions on the device it is used on.
- Read Mode: This new document view delivers a clean, full-screen view of your document with page transitions: very akin to reading an eBook. Double-click an image to pull up a larger view, and click outside to return to the document. Elegant.
- Open and edit PDFs directly in Word: Perhaps one of the most important features--you can now open and edit PDF documents directly in Word. While Microsoft says that original formatting is preserved, I found a few discrepancies in document layout when I tried it with a PDF that had tables. Still, this is an important capability that will no doubt be very welcomed.
- Intuitively Auto-fill cells: Excel can now guess what you might want to fill into a series of cells, depending on what you have manually entered. In the example provided in the Excel tour of this preview, if one column contains a collection of 'firstname.lastname' type email addresses, and if you type the first name in an adjoining column of the first entry, Excel suggests filling in the first name of each of the others in the following cells--an interesting 'situational' awareness' feature that I'm sure will crop up and help in several similar scenarios.
- Quick Analysis of tables: Select a table and buttons appear next to the selection that enable you to quickly implement formatting, check totals, create charts and the like--a time saver when working with tabular data.
- Recommended charts: Select a table containing data and clicking Insert | Recommended Charts will suggest numerous chart types to choose from, which you can subsequently tweak. Next to the newly-created chart, three floating buttons (chart elements, styles, and filters) let you quickly modify the chart to your liking and requirement--another time-saving feature.
- Widescreen themes: The new PowerPoint has numerous widescreen themes to choose from at the outset of creating a presentation. Very relevant, given that so many presentations are made on widescreen displays these days.
- Alignment tools and on-screen guides: As in Word, visual alignment guides also appear in PowerPoint to help accurately place slide elements.
- Merge Shapes: This is a particularly neat design tool that enables you to create interesting new shapes by combining existing shapes in different creative ways.
- The new Presenter view: This view particularly enhances the presentation experience by displaying upcoming slides on your screen, while only presenting the current slide to your audience. This view also has other new functionality that will help streamline the presentation process.
- Collaborate on presentations: Users from different locations can now collaborate on a PowerPoint file and make changes in tandem, all the while chatting and communicating within the PowerPoint interface.
- Make your presentation online: Even if your audience does not use Office 2013, you can deliver your presentation via their web browser and directly present online.
The suite has several other components like Access, Publisher, Outlook and OneNote, but these warrant a deeper review. However going by this first look, Office 2013 represents a major revolution in the ability to make your documents available--across locations and devices. It also introduces several productivity-enhancing and truly innovative features that will make for an enriching user experience. However in this preview version, I did notice several instances of the application not responding, and generally being sluggish. Being pre-release, this is understandable. Assuming this is addressed in the release version, Office 2013--especially when coupled with Microsoft's online cloud services--will provide a compelling solution to creating, managing and accessing your documents in this new mobile, connected era.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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