Microsoft Office 2016 review: It’s all about collaboration

22 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Microsoft Office 2016 deals with Clutter and tells you stuff.

Building 5 is part of the cluster of buildings that were among the first erected at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters 13 miles east of downtown Seattle—so I’m told, on a recent trip here. The new suite includes some significant additions designed to ease collaboration, with Skype and Yammer accessible from everywhere, and live editing being offered from the desktop.

Microsoft Office 2016 goes on sale Tuesday, bringing real-time collaboration, improved Skype integration and quick access to many options to the suite that includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint.“It looks like you’re writing a letter, would you like the letter template?” it would ask, before you swiftly looked for the ‘X’ to shut it down. That would have been back in the late ’80s, when perhaps only a few prescient people could have predicted how the company would emerge as one of the world’s biggest and most historic technology firms—and how its command post would grow right along with it. Outlook (below) sees the biggest change in its history, with attachments now held in OneDrive and placeholders used to prevent multiple copies of documents and the dreaded inbox bloat. Today, Microsoft’s headquarters, much like the headquarters of every other tech giant, is an open, sprawling campus: 80 buildings spanning 500 acres, with an on-site mall, fields and courts for almost every sport imaginable—including baseball and cricket—and landscaping that includes hiking trails and waterfalls.

Microsoft Sway (below), a progression from PowerPoint in terms of data presentation, allows you to put together raw data – PDFs, spreadsheets, even entire PowerPoint presentations – which are then chewed up and turned into something beautiful with minimal effort. You could spend hours going over them all, but start here, with our handpicked selection of the newsworthiest Office 2016 for Windows features: Realtime collaboration – The key to Office’s continued success is realtime collaboration. But Microsoft, which has seen long-time customers turn to Google, Apple and others for word processing, spreadsheets and other competing apps, says Office 2016 will improve on older versions. Microsoft wants to be your personal assistant when it comes to clearing them out all those promos and emails from colleagues who never have anything useful to say.

You know the ones. “Clutter watches things that come into your inbox and sit there for a long time, things you delete instantly and things you consistently move to a different folder,” Microsoft general manager of Office marketing Jared Spataro said. “After learning your habits, the feature will very conservatively move messages it perceives to be noise into a folder labelled “clutter”. “Every couple of days it will send an email saying ‘I have moved the following new messages into the clutter folder, you should tell me if I have done something wrong’.” Another exciting time saving feature is the “Tell Me” bar, which promises to cut the legwork out of discovering how to use specific functions. I drive right up to Building 5 on the southeast edge of the campus—today it’s the Skype building—and am ushered into a sterile, white-walled conference room to hear about Microsoft’s vision for the future of productivity—a vision tied to the company’s familiar past: meet the new Microsoft Office.

The best way to assess the latest version is to “look at the new scenarios we’re enabling,” he said in an interview. “We believe the Office 2016 release represents that big shift from ‘me productivity’ to ‘team productivity.’” The update includes a Groups feature in Outlook for a corporate team or even just a group of friends planning a trip to manage messages and documents. In many cases, it will even perform the function by virtue of asking the question, giving a feeling of “oh… give it here, I’ll do it myself”, which anyone techie will know very well.

As it is integrated with Bing, it will then bring up the insights toolbar will open with definitions, Wiki articles, and top related searches from the web to help users further their knowledge. Since the initial features won’t work in every program at launch, Tuesday’s release can be viewed as planting a flag, Villaron said, showing the direction Microsoft is heading. Office will also have enhanced features to allow better collaboration between people, such as making changes to shared documents in real time and Skype integration. I meet with Microsoft engineers, who tell me stories that illustrate just how much of a culture shift had to happen, under newish CEO Satya Nadella, to deliver product updates more quickly and get this version of Office out the door. Acknowledging the cost of Office may have been previously prohibitively expensive for some people, Microsoft has introduced monthly subscriptions to make it easier on users’ wallets.

It’s interesting, and telling that it feels as though the reason Microsoft brought me up here is to become well-versed enough in Office 2016 that I could act as an in-depth product reviewer. And of course, the company does have a vested interest in making sure Office’s reviewers can enumerate those new features—which include things like real-time co-authoring inside of documents; Skype in-app integration; cloud-based attachments; and a machine learning-based help feature called Tell Me—since those features are meant to telegraph the overarching message Microsoft wants the public to hear: we totally understand how you get your work done today, and we know what you’ll need to be productive in the future. It’s a message that Microsoft under Nadella is seeking to embrace to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world where the business model that made Bill Gates rich is less and less relevant.

New tools like Sway, a way to make instant PowerPoint presentations, and Planner, an app to manage projects, could be hits –but only if they’re spotted. Office 2016 works best when the cloud features are behind it too.” But with that choice comes the subscription model, which won’t be to everyone’s taste.

For companies with Office 365 for Business accounts, Skype integrates with the corporate directory so that co-workers can communicate, and even start co-authoring documents from their chats. Most important for Microsoft’s future, he’s pushing to get people to pay more for Office, and pay more regularly, than the usual $150 for a new version every few years. We peek into our emails, reword a phrase or two in a cloud document, and shoot off informative missives about the lunch meal options to coworkers via work chat. But with the enterprise version of 10 still in its infancy, many businesses will be unable or unwilling to take the plunge – even if Microsoft does a stealth download. We prefer apps that buzz our phones in our pockets while we’re away from our desks, apps that let us know what we should be paying attention to at work—right now—and apps that work across all different kinds of devices and operating systems.

Amy Hood, Microsoft’s chief financial officer, described Office 365 as “critical” because a deeper, consistent relationship with customers makes it easier to sell them add-ons or additional services. In the recent past, what IT would allow on your work devices was so locked down that it was unthinkable you would get to pick and choose which apps and services to use, let alone mix personal and business data on your machine. Nowadays, the BYOD (bring your own device) movement has had some time to mature, along with something that may very well be called “bring your own apps.” Is your company dragging its feet on purchasing an official license for something you really want to use? No problem: small teams are increasingly signing up ad hoc to use apps of their choice. (Startups love this, by the way—it’s an opportunity for them, once those rebellious teams reach critical mass inside a company, to convert those companies into real customers.) And yet, even with what looks to be a kind of funeral for more traditional software like Office—“software is dead, long live services”—few of us have ever really broken up with Microsoft completely. Office has for so long set the standard for how we’ve expected to do work, and it lingers in the work we do now, no matter how self-consciously we try to change.

Now, when you’re not actively clicking inside on of the icon-riddled ribbons at the top of the screen, it tucks away, and all you see are the various ribbon categories. One-time purchasing – Here’s the big news for a lot of people who didn’t really take to the idea of paying an annual fee for Microsoft’s Office suite: You can now, once again, just pay for it and be done.

A new search box called Tell Me on PowerPoint, Word and Excel lets you search for a feature — say “Columns” — and immediately pull up the relevant menu. For anyone on the fence, or just confused by the wealth of new features, Microsoft will also be offering free one-hour Office 2016 workshops at Microsoft Stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Microsoft’s job in now to convince them—us—that with the introduction of Office 2016’s new features, it’s worth your while to use Office for every kind of work you’ve shifted onto other apps. And in Microsoft’s favor, it’s got a good head start over even the most popular newfangled productivity tools: 1 in 7 people on the planet (1.2 billion in total) use Office today. The number of consumer subscriptions on Office 365—Microsoft’s cloud-based subscription service—grew 22 percent in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2015, from 12.4 million to 15.2 million subscribers. Microsoft needs to erase the image of Office as an old, lumbering giant and replace it with an impression of the nimble flexibility enjoyed by all those buzzy startups with which it now finds itself competing.

The question, though, is whether a company that really is a big, old giant can overcome the ingrained ways that could stand in the way of its ambitions. Koenigsbauer remembers the moment he walked onstage during Apple’s big September keynote event in great detail—a moment one journalist described by merely saying: “Hell has frozen over.” Proudly, he recalls that Phil Schiller, Apple’s chief marketer, teed up his entrance after talking about the iPad Pro by announcing, “Who to know better about productivity than Microsoft? These guys know productivity!” “It was quite an interesting moment, because I came out and people were sort of gobsmacked,” Koenigsbauer laughs. “They were like, ‘Who the heck is this guy? What’s he doing?’” His entrance, he recalls, was met with silence and blank stares. “There was a bit of a pause as I was coming out,” he says. “And then there was a big round of applause. I think, frankly, people realized the enormity of the moment that Apple and Microsoft were partnering on this together.” Koenigsbauer says it was 18 long months of concentrated work leading up to that moment that had made being onstage possible.

The team first practiced shipping new features internally, and now they say the public should expect to get new updates—fast. “A lot more is coming much faster than you think,” Braun says. Part of Microsoft’s past year and a half of development of these products meant “partnering externally”—meaning working with what Microsoft used to call competitors—with whom it now needs decent working relationships to make sure Office works on their platforms.

They got rid of API calls that were specific to particular platforms, identified the chunks of code that spanned the different platforms, and figured out how they could apply that code more generally across the products. In Word, co-authoring can even happen in real-time, letting you see other users’ edits as they make them. “We think this could be a hit with writers and editors,” Julia White, a general manager for Office, enthuses as she demonstrates the feature for me.

But I can’t help thinking how terrible it would be for my editor to be able see my raw copy—not to mention my typing, deleting, rephrasing, and retyping, in real-time. Some nifty new features take the pain out of the regular, annoying way of doing a routine process; others tack something new onto an old app to enhance it. Something Microsoft calls “modern attachments” automatically brings up the last file you worked on when you make a move to attach something to email instead of having to search for it manually. Within Excel, meanwhile, Microsoft has added the ability to make six new charts, including the much-requested waterfall—which Excel nerds managed to hack together manually in the past, after much tedium. Using a feature called “Recommended Charts,” Excel can also look at a set of data and, well, recommend which chart might work best to visualize it. “This is in the spirit of letting Office work for you, versus you doing the work,” says White. “How we make it more powerful, yet easy, easy, easy to use.” But my favorite feature of all is Excel’s new ability to forecast trends based on historical data, such as sales.

Feed the program the information, and it spits out a median prediction, an upper band, and a lower band—and you can choose which scenario suits your projection. Users can go in and tweak individual elements like confidence intervals. “We demoed this to our sales team a few months ago, and they just stood and clapped,” White says. The company says Tell Me can lead users to the right Office feature or command with high accuracy—and, White assures me, it will get better in time as Microsoft gathers more data about the kinds of things people input into the search box. Machine learning is also put to work right inside Outlook 2016, an app that’s helmed by a fairly new addition to the Microsoft team, Javier Soltero, the former CEO and co-founder of the beloved email app Acompli, which was acquired by Microsoft last year.

The creation of two brand-new apps shows Microsoft isn’t just introducing updates and copying features that have proven to work—it’s actually come up with a couple of new concepts from scratch. GigJam, which was actually unveiled earlier this year, is now available, as of today, in private preview, and will roll out as part of Office 365 in 2016. Think of it like an empty canvas that can pull in databases from any of the apps across Microsoft’s ecosystem—email, for one—and almost any SaaS application—like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics CRM—and can link, filter, and redact details from those databases and push pieces of information to workers who, for instance, are part of a supply chain. Microsoft seems to imagine that GigJam users are typically involved in business transactions, like order fulfillment, HR, or procurement, but the tool could conceivably expanded to a host of other applications.

It utilizes an algorithmic design engine that knows—and can apply—the basic tenets of design theory to optimize the “story” you’re trying to tell for any screen, whether you have an iPhone, an Android tablet, or a standard laptop. You start with a topic, and the app can automatically pull in content from copyright-friendly sources such as Wikipedia and Flickr; before you know it, if all goes according to Microsoft’s plan, you have a product worth sharing. It was incubated inside of a group at Microsoft called Office Labs, and the thought process in conceiving it, according to Chris Pratley, Sway’s product manager and a longtime Microsoft employee, was: “Don’t just change what exists.

If you could start from scratch in this decade, what would presenting information, expressing yourself, be like?” In this decade, Pratley says, what’s different is phones, digital consumption, social media, and a baseline expectation on design. Bret Taylor is founder and CEO of enterprise software company Quip—one of those buzzy productivity apps nipping at Office’s heels—and former Facebook CTO.

It’s true.” But although Microsoft is more agile, and more willing to do things differently than it was before Nadella took over, the changing ways we work are bearing down fast on the company. “The question is,” Taylor muses, “Can Microsoft change themselves faster than the rest of the world changes?”

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