Office 15 Preview

Whether you realise it or not, we’re living in exciting times when it comes to PCs.

For the most part, up until recently the PC world has been pretty much as it always has at a more fundamental user level, particularly in the Windows arena. Not a lot had really changed when you think about it; the internals sure did and we’ve moved on from single-core processors into multi-core monsters, but things like Windows Explorer and Office have largely remained the same, save for the Ribbon being introduced. But with the rise of tablets and the Cloud (as much as I hate buzzwords) the game has changed. Go back to old 90s PC magazines and you’ll find promises of a bright new future where all our files were going to be easy to access from the Internet, and we’d never have to worry about hard drives or anything again. All our files will be at our fingertips, wherever we are. It’s 2012 and that finally has become a reality which is actually feasible to deploy, though you’re about to see it pushed like never before.

If you’ve been using the Windows 8 preview you’d know that Microsoft are really pushing SkyDrive integration. And why not? It’s 7GB of free space to store your documents, and comes with a basic Office Online client. I used to use DropBox, but not anymore. I can’t see any reason not to use it, because it’s free, and 7GB will outdo a lot of the others, plus upgrading to more is fairly cheap in comparison to some other providers. Office 15 (2013?) has a Technical Preview out right now, for free, for you to play with. If anything, Office 15 further reinforces Microsoft’s decision to travel down the path of cloud computing, as well as changing a few fundamental aspects of how you use software. The Preview is available to pretty much anyone, though you’ll need to be running either Windows 7 or Windows 8. You’ll also need to log into a Windows Live account to get access to the beta, though no doubt you’ve got one kicking around somewhere.

Office 15 seems to be heading down a curious path, one which you might not altogether like. To be honest, I’m not 100% clear on what’s going on here… so take anything here with a grain of salt. It seems that Office 15 will come in three editions: Office 365 Home Premium, Small Business Premium, ProPlus, and Enterprise. Eagle-eyed officers will note that the “Office 365” designation refers to the online version Office usually deployed in enterprise environments, but is now available to home users as well in a limited form. We’ll talk about that in a second, but basically it’s an extension of the cloud computing idea where your documents live in the cloud (SkyDrive, to be specific) and you’ll get access to versions of Office across multiple platforms. At present in Australia we only get access to the Home Premium version, netting you access to Word PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher. Which is pretty much what all of you are going to be using. Each account gets 5 installs, and this will also cover you to install Office on a Mac on the final release. That’s 5 concurrent installs; presumably when you uninstall it from another computer, you’ll get that install back. In any event, the final package will include an additional 20GB of SkyDrive space, along with 60 minutes of Skype calls per month. Sounds like a good package, right? Maybe. It looks like Office is moving to a subscription service, which will no doubt raise a few hackles. And I don’t blame you, though depending on the pricing it might be roughly equal to what you might already pay for a decent cloud service, plus it’ll keep your Office version upgraded with each new release. It’s a bold plan, but only time will tell if it succeeds.

I don’t have Windows 8 installed on my laptop anymore (because AMD/Dell aren’t making proper hybrid GPU drivers yet, I can’t run it without the AMD GPU sucking power constantly, leaving me with bugger all battery life) so I can’t answer any questions about the Metro version of Office 15, but I will go through the various bits and bobs of the desktop apps. The installer is relatively painless and seemed to be incredibly quick; it doesn’t so much “install” as it “streams” features. I have no idea how this really works in practice, but I was up and running in a few minutes. You sign in to your Windows Live account (or you can skip it, but you probably got one to get access to the Preview, so do it anyway) and sit through a short video beating the benefits of the cloud into your skull. Then you have the option to open up PowerPoint, and see a quick slideshow. Oh, one more thing – by default it installs the x86 version of the preview, as recommended by Microsoft. You can change the version to x64, though with Office I really don’t think it matters too much. I doubt you’ll want to chew up 4GB of RAM with Office.

Feel free to learn or something.

May as well start with PowerPoint then. The interface has been brought into line with Metro standards; where we had gradients and smooth transitions before, we now have solid blocks of colour. White is the order of the day, along with an orange bar at the bottom. The ribbon is still here (some of you will groan at that) though there’s also a new option to maximise the work space, hiding the ribbon and pretty much everything else too. All the icons get the same treatment; they’re flat and simplified in visual style. This makes it all look very, very clean and neat but seems a little too simplistic. For the most part I’m not seeing too many new features in PowerPoint; it’s much the same as its always been, though the File menu now has a cleaner Metro UI (which is a vast improvement on the old File menu in Office 2010), and offers to save to your SkyDrive or your Computer.

There are some changes though. Firstly, there’s support for widescreen themes, which is long overdue. Presenter view has been cleaned up and has a few new features, like a virtual laser pointer. It also looks a lot nicer. Microsoft have also made it easier to stream presentations online to web browsers.

OneNote is my next app to check out, and I use OneNote an awful lot. I find it really useful for taking notes in lectures, and in making up quick clinical reference guides which I access on my phone. I can’t stress how useful I find OneNote, so I’m interested in any major update. As with every single other app it gets the clean UI treatment, with solid colours, but otherwise there’s not a significant amount of change here either. The interface is cleaner, but otherwise it’s the OneNote I know and love. One thing I do like however is that I can maximise the screen so that only the actual page is visible, without any toolbars or anything, allowing me to dock it on the side of the screen. One thing I really do NOT like is how it dumps a Screen Clipping app into the taskbar. I really wish apps would stop doing that. Just go to the system tray. Although the app still can do offline notebooks, it seems fairly obvious that Microsoft want you to put your notebooks online… and really, I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t. It makes them a lot more accessible.

Word is the next in line. You know, people bitch about Office and Word and stuff, but having tried all the alternatives, I can’t think of anything else that really does the same kind of job as Office. Most others are messy pretenders with crappy UIs and poor compatibility, but I digress. I forgot to note that by default when you open up any of the apps it takes you to a big screen where you can select either a recent document from a list on the right, or a template to start working with. Microsoft have dumped a buttload of templates for you to play with. The interface is very clean and fairly easy to work with once you learn the differences. As with every single other app Word gets the clean interface overhaul, though I sort of like it here. It’s still a bit too bright for my liking; it sort of hurts my eyes a little bit, probably due to the lack of contrast between the background and the actual pages. I’m not seeing a great deal of functionality changes, save for the fact that there’s a new Design tab that affects the document as a whole, making it a bit easier to apply styles to the entire document.

There are some new changes though. Firstly, dragging images around provides layout and alignment guides, helping you to snap things to various locations like directly below a paragraph or in the centre of a page. The Collaboration features have received a bit of an upgrade too, though I never used them before so I can’t comment on how much better they are. You can also insert online videos. Why would you want to? I have no idea. Here’s a MUCH more important new feature – Word can now open and edit PDF files. It can also output to PDF. While Adobe aren’t exactly going to be quaking in their boots (Acrobat is still far better for controlling PDFs, say with things like redacting parts of a document) it does represent a fairly big new feature for Word, and one I’m glad to see.

Am I teaching you anything yet?

Excel does show some changes. There’s a bunch of new templates which try to help people get started with using Excel. Really Excel isn’t something I use all that much; I use Word, I use OneNote, I use Outlook, I use PowerPoint, but Excel generally doesn’t have that much of a purpose for me. Microsoft have designed a significant number of templates to give people ideas for why they might want to use Excel; everything from todo lists and budgeting, to work schedules and currency converters, of all things. That said I did still play around with it briefly, and did notice a few things following the new “Welcome to Excel” example spreadsheet. Firstly, it seems like Flash Fill is a bit more intelligent; in the demo, it recognises that you’re typing the first name from a series of emails in an adjacent column, and can fill in the column on its own. There’s also a new Analysis feature – select a table and a little button appears in the corner of the table which allows you to preview various formatting options as well as quick charts and sum options. It’s fairly useful. Also Excel can now recommend charts for you.

Publisher isn’t an app I use all that much these days, I don’t really have much use for it, but I figured I’d better take a look. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the template to show off the new features to download; it’d just stall and crash the app. So, um… I guess I’ll update this later if I manage to get it to work. From general inspection though, I didn’t see anything startlingly new. Then again, the last time I used Publisher extensively was back when Publisher 98 was new, and when I last touched it in 2010, nothing much had changed.

It’s Microsoft Word! Sorry, I can’t think of captions today.

Finally, I use Outlook extensively since my university email account uses a variation of it. Outlook took its dear sweet time in starting up (as it often likes to do) with fetching mailbox settings and generally playing with itself for no reason. Outlook’s interface probably shows the larger changes. Tabs for Mail, Calendar, People, and Tasks appear at the bottom. Otherwise it seems much the same as always… which means it’s Outlook. It’s a fairly good mail client, the end

I didn’t check out Access too much because I don’t touch it these days and wouldn’t be qualified to comment on it.

Across the board, the experience is a LOT smoother. Zooming, moving things around, scrolling, the entire UI is a lot more fluid to use. It’s heavily integrated with the cloud and it sports a very clean looking interface. The changes aren’t really massive in that they represent significantly new functionality, but they are welcome. The main drawcard however is that Microsoft are really showing how they’re pushing to unify the desktop, tablet, and mobile phone markets. Forcing Metro UI onto a desktop isn’t the way to go about it, but Office 15 shows a step in the right direction by providing tighter cloud integration, and utilising a Touch mode that can be toggled on and off (and basically makes the buttons larger so it’s easier to tap them with a finger). But in terms of major functionality, there’s no significant boost here.

It’s worth checking out the preview if you’re on Win7 or Win8 (only OneNote will have a Metro app at this stage) but if you’re cloud-adverse you might be put off by the insistence on using SkyDrive at this point. While none of it is particularly earth-shattering in terms of features, it does represent a new design goal where apps are tightly integrated with the cloud. To be honest, I was fairly pleased to be able to “install” Office within a couple of minutes, and most of my documents already live in the cloud (mostly as an easy off-site backup), so for me I’m pretty pleased with the way Office is heading.

But it does bring out one significant point – what of the subscription model? It’s not entirely clear how Office will end up in the hands of consumers. Will Microsoft sell a standard disc-version without a subscription? Probably, but I don’t know for sure. That said, the potential for a subscription service may in fact exist, depending on pricing. If it’s reasonably priced (say about what you’d pay for extra SkyDrive storage as it stands), it would probably be a hit and encourage SkyDrive adoption over the other services (storage vs storage with Office? No brainer). But Microsoft may not choose to take that path… though their Windows 8 pricing suggests that they are looking to capture the market with lower prices, which could suggest a new movement towards cheap pricing versus the typically high MS price for software. The extra storage, Skype call time, and continually upgrading Office apps might make it worth while for people (I’d be interested, depending on the price) but whether the general market will take to it remains to be seen.

For now though you can install the Preview alongside your existing Office install, and it’s free to participate (though you don’t get the extra SkyDrive space or Skype calls of course), so check it out and see if it’ll help with your workflow. Microsoft only offer a web installer at the moment – it’ll take about 10 or so minutes to get the basics installed, with additional content streamed afterwards. Full install can take an hour or so depending on your connection speed.

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