Microsoft today officially unveiled a customer preview of Office 2013, including new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote and other modules, with a consistent suite-wide interface that's enhanced for use on tablets.
With the Windows 8 launch now confirmed for October, Redmond today gave Office customers a first look at the suite, which is rumored to be generally available early next year.
Microsoft, in advance of the release, sent CRN an Intel Core i5-based Samsung Series 7 Slate tablet with 4 GB of memory pre-configured with 64-bit Windows 8, the latest preview of Office 365 and credentials for downloading the latest Office app betas for review.
What we found was a stable and responsive suite of apps with a consistent user interface that integrates more tightly with each other and with Internet-based storage and social networks.
The first thing we noticed was that most of the new apps don't execute in Metro but instead run in Desktop Mode, confirming rumors from February to that effect.
Falling into this category are Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Access, Project and Visio, plus Exchange, InfoPath and SharePoint servers. Only the Lync and OneNote betas are Metro-style; Microsoft declined to comment on when other modules might follow suit.
Still, Word, Outlook and other Office apps fill the screen and appear and behave much like Metro-style apps when used in the new touch mode, which brings up special navigation icons and "flattens" the user interface to make it more finger-friendly.
A new "Read Mode" in Word simplifies the experience of text consumption with automatic adjustments of column and text flow as well as the ability to quickly define, translate and look up words when an internet connection is available.
Other finger-friendly features in Word 2013 include object zoom, which enlarges objects such as images, tables and charts with a tap or pinch. A second like gesture restores the object to its original size.
Word also now bookmarks the reader's last position and will pick up right where you left off, even if it's on a different device. Of course, this only applies to documents being read from a SkyDrive account and not to documents being read in a non-Microsoft cloud repository.
When used with SkyDrive, Word 2013 saves to it by default. This simplifies document sharing and real-time collaboration with other SkyDrive users and helps keep document versions under control. Word's "Track Changes" feature can now be locked with a password to prevent unauthorised changes from eluding notice.
Word 2013 can be used as an online presentation tool, even if those viewing the presentation don't have Word. Documents can now be shared through a browser, and people can follow along as the owner scrolls through the document.
Word can now open and edit PDF documents or use objects from within to create new presentations; the default save format remains that of Word.
Alignment guides automatically pop up to allow precise placement of objects, and now images can be placed directly from Facebook, Flickr and other online sites without having to download and save locally first.
Excel 2013 is now fully-touch enabled, allowing finger or hand gestures to move through spreadsheets, charts and graphs with one-tap object zoom. It contains many of the same interface enhancements as those in Word, including a touch mode, direct access and the ability to post to web-based image repositories, as well as simplified sharing and online presentation.
There are also some fairly impressive features that simplify database population and the generation of useful reports and visually appealing graphics.
For those who have done a fair amount of importing into Excel, you've undoubtedly had at least one encounter with the dreaded conundrum of having all the data go into a single column. Now, a feature in Excel 2013 called Flash Fill takes care of that.
As you manually correct the import, moving it piece-by-piece into separate columns, this impressive feature observes your activity and offers to finish the job for you.
Excel 2013 moves data that was incorrectly placed into a single column and automatically moves it to multiple columns. In fact, Flash Fill recognises any repetitive behavior pattern and offers to replicate it without macros or scripts.
Anyone who has used pivot tables knows that they can be fairly challenging to create. Now, a new feature called Recommended PivotTable analyses your data and suggests options for creating a pivot table that best summarizes the information in the current spreadsheet.
And, a Quick Trend feature lets you pull up a historical chart and format it with more control and precision than in prior Excel versions.
There's also a Timeline Slicer to further aid in visualisation of data over specific time periods. For manipulating large data sets in real time, an add-in called PowerPivot makes Excel behave like an in-memory database.
As with 2013 versions of Word and Excel, PowerPoint 2013 doesn't require people to have the app to view your presentations; Office 2013 docs can be easily shared, allowing others to view documents through any web browser.
To share a document, simply select Share from the file menu. This brings up a login for Windows Live. After logging in, a URL pops up that can be copied and pasted into an email for inviting participants.
In our tests, web sharing worked perfectly with Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers. Safari was unable to join a presentation in progress.
In the browsers, slides advanced almost immediately along with the presenters'; browser back buttons are inoperable. We weren't able to find a way to bring up that URL again after a presentation begins, in case anyone wants to join late. Short of quitting the app, there appears to be no way to stop an online presentation once the show's over.
Microsoft has added lots of tools to PowerPoint 2013 to aid in the creation of presentations. For starters, a new start screen displays about a half-dozen attractive wide-screen themes that can spark ideas for new presentations.
As in Word 2013, a series of new or improved alignment guides help in the precise placement of art elements and other objects so that images don't appear to jump around from one slide to the next.
Also new are master level guides, which appear when creating new slides from a master. When using SkyDrive, multiple people can collaborate on a slide show at the same time.
PowerPoint now (finally) supports music as a bed for an entire presentation. Perhaps as long awaited, a new presenter view lets the presenter navigate through all available slides without effecting what is being displayed.
This allows presenters to skip directly to a slide ahead or back using a visual grid without forcing everyone to also watch the replay. And, as in other Office 2013 apps, Facebook, Flickr and other cloud services can now be direct sources for imagery.
When connecting to a second screen or projector, PowerPoint 2013 automatically adjusts that screen's settings and switches to presenter mode.
And in case it gets the screens mixed up, a "swap displays" function reverses the error. Presenters can help an in-person audience focus on particular areas of a slide with a new click, or tap, to zoom, but web participants see only static images.
Microsoft has worked hard to bring multiple data sources together seamlessly in outlook 2013. For example, when viewing an email that contains an address, it plots the location on a Bing map. If the sender is someone in your organisation, their presence info is visible, and a new peek feature lets you see further details about the person.
Drilling further might show that person's department, rank within the organisation or your recent email or instant messaging exchanges. If they're requesting a meeting, Outlook 2013 lets you peek at the relevant date on your calendar without opening the calendar app.
Outlook 2013 can now be the destination not only for messages and appointments from Exchange but also from POP and IMAP mail systems and third-party calendars. It also can display updates from contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social sites.
Best of all, Outlook 2013 can install beside a current version of Outlook to facilitate pilot testing and phased implementations without effecting user productivity.
The bottom line
As we've observed from the recent Windows 8 release preview, Microsoft is focused squarely at improving the tablet experience and taking desktop keyboard and mouse users for granted.
The same appears to be true of Office 2013, which adds a touch mode in most modules, implements two Metro-style components and transforms its interface into a flatter, cleaner and more consistent Metro-like look and feel across the suite.
Features such as the ribbon, peek and seamless web and social network integration are there, sliding in and out of sight as needed.
Meanwhile, Microsoft will offer the software for download only. There will be no more software discs. For software sold in stores, there will be a license key in the box in place of the CD, with downloads and updates coming from Microsoft's store and update sites.
Redmond also promises a new, synchronized release schedule, with all modules set to release at the same time for all devices.
Formerly code-named Office 15, Office 2013 is expected to be generally available in early 2013.