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Microsoft Gets Radical With Office 2013 and 365
The software giant has been accused of losing its mojo, but the bold new look and cloud-friendly functionality of the next-gen Office productivity suite say otherwise.
SAN FRANCISCOMicrosoft isn’t ditching the software-in-a-box model that helped make it the most successful technology company in the world for a big chunk of the past two decades.
Not just yet, anyway.
On Monday, Microsoft unveiled its upcoming Office 2013 and Office 365 products here, giving us a glimpse at a fundamental recalibration of how the company plans to do business going forward, starting with its flagship productivity application suite. The software giant will still sell Office in a box, but Redmond wants you to know that its heart and soul is now floating in the cloud.
“Your modern office thinks cloud first. You can just click and start running Office immediately,” Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer said, introducing the new product line. “Office is a service first. And I would tell you this is the most ambitious release of Microsoft Office that we’ve ever done.”
PCMag software analyst Jill Duffy got her hands on the customer beta versions of Office 2013 and Office 365, both of which Microsoft released Monday, loaded on a Samsung Series 7 tablet convertible running the company’s upcoming operating system, Windows 8. She called the look of Office’s repurposed versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and other applications “much smarter.”
It’s tough to argue with that assessment after seeing Microsoft senior vice president Kirk Koenigsbauer demo the products in the morning session, followed by more detailed breakout sessions for enterprise users and consumers in the afternoon at Monday’s event (see a video demo of the new Office here).
Microsoft has clearly shifted gears since the Vista debacle when new bells and whistles in its Windows operating system caused a revolt among its enterprise customers and the company responded by releasing the perfectly respectable but ho-hum Windows 7 OS. Now Redmond appears to be saying, “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead” with a series of new products that are fundamentally disruptive to the company’s old way of doing business.
That starts with Windows 8 and its ARM-flavored version, Windows RT, which are built for touch-enabled computing and sport a user interface that’s as radical a departure from the past as anything Microsoft has ever done. The new Office products are built from the ground up for the new, breezy Windows 8 user interface and that had Ballmer gushing from on stage at the Metreon entertainment complex in San Francisco.
“It feels like it’s 1995 at Microsoft again. We have the most exciting, vibrant, dynamic operating system in years with Windows 8 and we combine that with the most exciting, vibrant new version of Office in years,” said the Microsoft CEO, who has been criticized for his leadership in recent years and was profiled rather unflatteringly in a much-discussed Vanity Fair article this month.
Mr. Mojo Rising
That story describes Microsoft’s “lost decade” and how under Ballmer’s leadership, the software giant “lost its mojo.” If so, radical reboots and redesigns like the Metro interface in Windows 8, the switch to the core Windows kernel for the upcoming Windows Phone 8, and a bold new look for Office certainly point to a company that’s willing to fight to get that mojo back.
Duffy found the new look of Office to be a lot smarter than the functional but decidedly boring productivity apps Microsoft has been serving us for years. Also smart is Microsoft’s marrying of Office to the cloud via its Office 365 service. Call it a belated reaction to the growing power of Google’s cloud-based productivity suite in the marketplace, but this has been years in the makingMicrosoft didn’t just build Office 365 overnight.
There’s robust functionality in Office 365 that should prove immediately attractive to consumers and business users alike. Via Microsoft’s SkyDrive, you can now run Office on any device you happen to be using instead of just your main desktop or laptop. For example, when you switch from a PC to a tablet, you simply log into your SkyDrive account and the work you’ve been doing in Office is synced up to the new device, allowing you to pick up where you left off on the old one.
Microsoft is also bringing some of the technologies acquired in its latest buying spree to bear in the new Office. Koenigsbauer demoed Office 365 on a huge, 82-inch multi-touch display built by Perceptive Pixel, a company Microsoft bought earlier this month. Yammer, the enterprise social network Microsoft gobbled up just a few weeks earlier, also plays a key role in the new Office. And of course there’s Skype, which provides the engine for the video conferencing that highlights Microsoft’s new emphasis on social collaboration in its next-gen productivity suite.
There are also some hit-or-miss new features in the core applications themselves. Power Point now has a “presentation mode” that gives the presenter a “cockpit” of information about the slides he or she is showing to promote a more confident delivery. Excel, which thankfully still looks pretty much like this tried-and-true tool always has, has some smart new features that make organizing data pulled in from the Web a lot easier. You can now embed video in Word and dragging and dropping multimedia content into documents is smooth and painless. OneNote has a new radial menu that looks like it may be more fun to use than actually useful, etc. etc.
There will be enterprise customers who do not like all these radical changes to Office and probably some who will delay upgrading because of it. Microsoft doesn’t seem bothered by that inevitabilityjudging by Ballmer’s enthusiasm, the company’s having too much fun getting its mojo back after years of burying it to please a conservative installed base.
“For those of us who want to be productive, who want to communicate, who want to collaborate, this shapes up to be the most fun, productive year that anyone has experienced in a long time,” he said.
By Damon Poeter, PCMag