Microsoft’s Office suite is the heavyweight of all office software, and along with the Windows operating system, it is the software giant’s top-selling product, with more than a billion users world-wide. So when Microsoft changes Office in any way, it’s bound to send shock waves through its user base.
Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium
, released this morning, is sending out some shock waves of its own, but not really in the actual programs — unlike, say, the ribbon, a toolbar introduced with Office 2007 that jolted many people who weren’t expecting to have to learn more about how Office worked.
With Office 365, the individual applications — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access — are minimally tweaked; the new features are in how the applications are delivered and where they are used. Skype, the peer-to-peer video chat product owned by Microsoft since 2011, is not strictly a part of Office 365, but the use of the suite means you now have 60 free minutes of global calling per month to call mobiles, landlines or PCs around the world.
The major changes involve Office being sold as a service — meaning you pay an annual fee for using it — and its innate ability to work on a touch tablet. Two other changes will take a little acclimatization: Office’s integration with the cloud, in this case Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and the ability to install one version of the suite — the one most individual users or small groups will buy — on five different machines.
Microsoft has changed the categories of the suite. The product most of us knew as the Office Suite Professional is now a premium product aimed at corporate use. Aside from the various tweaks Microsoft has made to its applications, the Pro suite is the one that you pay for outright and install (from a DVD) on one machine, geared primarily for business users. But the version that Microsoft is urging everyone else to move to now is called Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium, which may confuse a number of people who had become accustomed to Microsoft’s historical use of the word “Home” as a synonym to “Lite,” meaning products meant for kids, students or the otherwise technically challenged.
The reason for this is that Office 365 is now heavily integrated with the cloud, which is likely to make security-concerned business users freak out. That’s understandable. But most other people, Microsoft figures, will feel secure enough to rely on Office 365 Home Premium’s cloud integration.
The reliance on the Web is the use of Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which Office 365 uses as a default
storage space when saving documents created by Word, Excel, Access and OneNote. (The default can be changed.) SkyDrive, which has been around since 2007, is a file-hosting service that allows users to upload and synchronize files so they can get access to them from any computer with a Web browser. Users can choose to share the files with the user’s contacts, with everyone or keeping them private.
Microsoft has been promoting SkyDrive as a method of having your data and documents “accessible from anywhere.” SkyDrive automatically synchronizes its contents with your computer; a document or data sheet created at home can later be opened using a browser, and the cursor will be displayed at the exact place where it was when the document was originally closed.
Microsoft has expanded the space on SkyDrive to 7 gigabytes of free storage for Office 2013 users. Files as big as 300 MB can be uploaded via drag-and-drop into the Web browser, or up to 2 GB via a SkyDrive desktop application available for both Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OSX.
The touch-sensitive aspect reflects Microsoft’s heavy investment in touch-sensitive screens for tablets and some notebooks. You don’t need any special version of Office to use it on a Windows 8-based tablet; Office will automatically implement it as it is loaded. This is one of those features that has split users — you either love touch-based operation or hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. But you can still use a keyboard with a tablet device, which will operate the traditional way.
The major shock for many individual users is the way Microsoft is selling the product. No longer will you be buying the suite on a DVD; you will be given a credit-card-sized piece of plastic with a 25-character serial number on the back, which will instruct you to go to the Office 365 Home Premium download page, where the serial number will be used as part of the installation process.
This is the way many big software packages are being sold these days. The software industry seems to have settled on this model, which makes the contract between the user and the manufacturer into a rental-based one. When sold as a product, software tended to be viewed as a product people could sell after they had bought it. The concept of software-as-a-service (SAAS) model, however, emphasizes that the software is not anyone’s to sell or re-sell. This allows software manufacturers to protect their intellectual property rights.
With SAAS, manufacturers have also changed their pricing model. Office 365 is sold for $99 per year (equivalent of $8.25 per month), which includes whatever upgrades the company makes to its product. Adobe has done this with its Creative Suite, without too much psychotic reaction from its fan base.
To sweeten the transition to SAAS, Microsoft is allowing users to install Office 365 on as many as five machines —“in recognition of the fact that there are multiple users in each family,” as one Microsoft executive put it at the Canadian launch.
More than half of Canadians now have more than two devices that connect to the Internet, said Microsoft VP Greg Barber, and so Office has been “built for a world of multiple devices.”
Families, said Nora Spinks of the Vanier Institute and founder of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, who was at the launch to illustrate the family orientation of the suite, have traditionally been about loving each other, caring for each other and parenting, but “they’re now trying to do that in more than one place. It’s not just home life and work life any more, it’s just life.”
Specifically, Office has a few new features.
A new read mode in Word, which hides the writing tools and menus, and a resume reading feature allow you to re-open a document or presentation and keep reading where you left off (in Word and PowerPoint).
For easier reading, you can click on an image, table or chart and it will fill the screen. Word also automatically bookmarks your last position in a document even after you have closed the document. This works even on a different PC or tablet when signed into your SkyDrive account.
A user can watch online videos in Word without having to leave the document.
When reviewing or editing a document, you can collapse or expand sections of the document with a tap or click. This will make larger documents easier to manage by collapsing paragraphs you are not working on, or expand them to explore further.
A navigation pane shows where you are in a document. It displays the contents, allows you to search the document, and tracks your place.
For documents with multiple authors, sharing and reviewing have been improved. When connected to your online Microsoft account, documents are saved to the cloud by default, and they can be shared by sending a link, allowing the user to manage and track only one version of the document.
Online documents can be shared on your screen with others even if they don't have Word. Send them a link, and they can follow you in their browser as you scroll through the document on your screen. You can also password-protect documents that are being shared.
Since the documents are online, it is now possible to add online photos and videos.
Word now makes the content of PDF files act like Word documents.
New alignment guides line up charts, photos or diagrams with text. You can move photos, videos and shapes through the document in real time while watching how the text around them changes.
A new design tab helps make design changes from one place, so you spend less time searching for what you need.
When you're online, you can use Word to search your albums on Facebook, Flickr, and other online services. Add pictures directly to the document without having to first save them to your desktop, laptop or tablet.
Excel, the spreadsheet program, suggests ways of summarizing data into a Pivot Table, and a new range of apps from the Office Store help represent and to interpret data, using such devices as a heat map to a radial bar chart. Excel also recommends suitable charts based on patterns in the data. The charts can then be fine-tuned with the title, layout or other elements.
A “flash fill” feature enters the rest of your data based on patterns in your data. Your data can also be dolled up with conditional formatting such as bars and colour scales through the Quick Analysis Lens.
Charts can also be animated to see the changes applied to your charts and better understand movement in your data.
Excel offers to structure and format your spreadsheets using templates for budgets, calendars, forms and reports.
Like Word, sharing a workbook has been simplified by sending a link to your workbooks saved in the cloud.
A workbook can also be shared by attaching it to an instant message to as many recipients as needed.
In PowerPoint, a tool called Eyedropper will automatically match the colours of shapes and pictures. PowerPoint’ “presenter view” allows the user to display slides on a screen viewable by the audience while the user controls the show on separate, private screen.
A new Excel start screen offers a collection of widescreen themes to enhance a presentation. Improved alignment guides line up shapes, text boxes and other graphics, offering a real-time view as you drop objects into the right place.
As in Word, when you’re online you can use PowerPoint to search your albums on Facebook, Flickr and other online services without first having to save them.
Videos with new formats can now be shown in PowerPoint, and music and sound play across several slides or your whole presentation.
Outlook: In Outlook, “inline replies” allows a user to reply by typing a response right in the reading pane. Your schedule, an appointment or your to-do list can be seen in a quick glimpse in Outlook, without having to switch from email to calendar or other modes.
Outlook offers social updates from your contacts such as LinkedIn, Facebook and others automatically.
Outlook also offers the ability to “peek” at your schedule, a specific appointment or details about the person you're emailing without moving screens or losing context. And multiple contacts are transparently joined into one view, reducing distracting duplicates and offering social context.
The program has also simplified e-mail processes, including Hotmail and third-party webmail, without downloading anything or installing add-ons.
Search is now extends beyond e-mail to attachments, calendar appointments and contacts.
A weather bar offers weather forecasts and conditions.
OneNote now allows a user to enter handwritten notes instead of typing them, which is apparently useful for those who can’t stand the clicking of a keyboard or those who are faster at handwriting than they are at typing. OneNote also allows users to embed files to keep them handy online or offline.
Microsoft has also added a free OneNote app for use on tablet.