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Microsoft opens window on Office 2013 with preview

Kirk Koenigbauer Corporate Vice President Microsoft Office Divisispeaks Microsoft event San Francisco Monday July 16 2012. Microsoft unveiled new versiits

Kirk Koenigbauer, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Office Division, speaks at a Microsoft event in San Francisco, Monday, July 16, 2012. Microsoft unveiled a new version of its widely used, lucrative suite of word processing, spreadsheet and email programs Monday, one designed specifically with tablet computers and Internet-based storage in mind. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Updated: July 18, 2012 1:58PM

In the OS world, there’s Windows, there’s Mac OS, there’s Linux, there’s iOS and Android...and you can also say that there’s Microsoft Office.

Hundreds of millions of people spend their entire working day entirely within the Microsoft Office workspace (with occasional furtive dips into Facebook and Tumblr when nobody’s looking). The details of the computer they’re using are significant to them as the make and design of the engine inside their cars.

So when Microsoft releases a major update to Office, that’s as big a deal as a major upgrade to any operating system. And it’s also the reason why major leaps forward are difficult to pull off. Microsoft is supporting a nation’s worth of people who just want the thing to work, and who don’t want to have to re-train because of a revolutionary change that makes the skills they’ve been using their entire working lives obsolete. The familiar interface is like the red stapler whose reassuring presence on a desktop keeps an office worker calm and content.

It’s not surprising, then, that Microsoft kept intact most of the surface of Office 2013 (announced Monday and available in the form of a consumer preview; download it from Most of the new bits are performance and feature-oriented. The steering wheel and the pedals are all in the same places they used to be...they’re just hooked up to better guidance.

Microsoft Word, for example, is now on intimate terms with PDF and can transmogrify content between document formats quickly and correctly. New features in Excel are normally the sorts of thing I hand off to an expert for comment -- it is possible to learn how to summon a fire elemental and bind it to a cursed object more quickly than the average non-economist can appreciate the improvements to a spreadsheet app.

But one of its top-of-the-marquee features will appeal to everyone: a new, enhanced intelligent autofill that can sense the context of tabular data as you attempt to add structure to the information. It’s not magical, but nonetheless quick experiments with text files and MySQL data convince me that with Excel 2013, there’ll be less need to carefully script out a conversion. A guided autofill operation will work wonders.

PowerPoint receives the most dramatic update. New creation tools make it a lot easier to create well-designed presentations quickly. The bigger win is a new presenter mode, which figures out which display is the presenter’s screen and which is for the rest of the room, and then populates the former with a customizable dashboard. Another Win: a nifty impromptu selection mode that makes it easy to skip around during a presentation.

There are a bunch of holistic improvements that affect the larger Office experience. First, I found the whole package of Microsoft software and services (document based apps, contacts, calendars and mail, chat and communications, and cloud storage) to be much more tightly integrated than before. You can quickly go from reading an email from a colleague to opening a live chat with him to collaborating on a document, without feeling as though you’re moving from one moving speedboat to the other. Office also uses a broader mechanism to define the people in your address book; a universal view collates location, contact and scheduling data as well as social updates. Again, Office 2013 keeps you all on the same luxury cruise ship and keeps you out of the opening chase scene from a James Bond movie.

Cloud support is very nicely integrated as well. The location of your data seems almost irrelevant. Office has shifted to a more “gallery-centric” document storage model, where previous editions were pretty firmly locked to the C: drive concept. It’s all one mass of projects and data. Where a specific file is and how to bring it up isn’t your problem.

Further, Office 2013 makes big strides towards making your actual computer irrelevant. If you’re at your office desktop...great. You can run your regular installation. If you’re at someone else’s? Just log into your Office365 account and the service will “stream” the binary to that Windows 7 or Windows 8 desktop. You are indeed running the real edition of Office locally, but you won’t be able use it on the machine back at your office until you log out again. And you can also run Office 2013 as webapps on any modern, studly browser on any platform. Features are limited, naturally, but the webapps acknowledge the increasing role of tablets and other mobile web devices.

The last major change is...hmm. Microsoft’s being aggressive in their support of touch. They’ve been big on that since Windows 7, which is fully wired up for multitouch operation, and Windows 8 is designed to cater to tablets in a major way.

Microsoft provided me with an advance copy of Office 2013 and a Samsung Series 7 tablet with prerelease Windows 8 a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been trying hard to see the improvements that have been made to Office to take advantage of multitouch, but largely I haven’t seen them. There’s another UI mode that gives the familiar Office apps larger targets. Okay, but the control you need to tap to activate it is tiny.

So the version I’m seeing here, today, seems to be geared towards tablets with keyboards and pointing devices installed.

But there’s a glimpse of future awesomeness: the Metro version of OneNote. All of the app’s familiar features are here, organized very well under a round “fan” control cluster that seems perfectly natural. Microsoft has kept completely mum about specific plans for Metro versions of Office apps, though we know that the low-cost ARM version of the Microsoft Surface tablet (which will be released this fall) will ship with Metro Office.

Can’t wait to see it. Until these apps arrive...yeah, tablet owners will be tossing a mouse in with their carry-on bags.

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