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Microsoft releases Office 2013. Good, but don’t get too excited

Updated: January 29, 2013 2:32PM

Microsoft released Office 2013 today. Head on over to to sign up for a free 30-day preview of the suite.

But don’t expect a huge, transformative revelation. Microsoft has added some nice features. They’ve made Office easier to use, and thanks to some impressive cloud integration features, you can use Office 2013 from almost any location or device without much thought or care about what device you threw into your bag or what files you might have saved to a central server.

They’ve also preserved one of Office’s most valued features, though: continuity. Microsoft has the unenviable challenge of pushing the most popular software suite forward without (oh, heaven forfend) forcing its users to adjust to something different or learn new skills.

They tried that with Windows 8. Look how well that one went over!

So Office is stuck with a lifecycle of incremental improvement, at a time when a multitouch rebirth might be a stronger move. Nonetheless, it’s a solid update.

Right at the top: Office 2013 is available as a conventional suite or as a subscription service. If you buy it as a traditional collection of apps — the Home and Student edition contains Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for $139 — you can install the suite on just one machine. And, alas, that does indeed only cover a single installation. You can’t put it on your desktop and your notebook, even if only one copy is ever in use.

Office 365 Home Premium costs $99 a year. It allows five installs of the Office 2013 suite, including Access and Publisher. If you’ve used up all five installs, you can pull the authorization from an existing machine and apply it to a new one. The economics on this scheme work well for households with many users (two spouses and kids, say). It’s a bit trickier for individuals...though the “one installation only” limit on the traditional bundle price might add some (stone-cold) clarity. Additional Office 365 plans are tailored for small business and allow for clean per-site licensing that expands and contracts as your business does.

Office 365 does offer an additional benefit: incremental feature updates that precede the next major release of Office apps. Your suite will receive the newest features, so long as you keep coming through with $99 a year. If you buy the traditional bundle, you’ll only get service packs (bugfixes, and updates that improve security and compatibility).

I’m a writer, so my antennae are most sensitive to the improvements to Word...many of which are emblematic of the whole suite.

Alas, no: Microsoft didn’t experience any Eureka moments in interface design. The apps are still dominated by multiple ribbon bars. The upside of this design choice is that features aren’t buried inside submenus and dialog boxes — indeed, some of the handiest tools seem to have been “promoted” from obscure locations in the previous Office — but it can still be bewildering.

Though Microsoft has stuck to their “discoverability, not minimalism” beliefs, they’ve still managed to clean up the UI. Needless colors and shadows have been eliminated, leaving behind an airier feel. There’s a “focus” mode that creates a content-oriented, button-minimal fullscreen interface, a special “reading mode” that makes it much easier to read and proof longform documents, and context-sensitive navigation that allows me to collapse and hide sections of a document to help me focus on just the bits I’m writing and editing.

I also dig the new “hub”-style organization of the app. Each app opens into a virtual lobby, presenting you with templates, documents and app functions in a clean, single window. When I’m done crafting pure gems of Truth, Beauty and Wisdom and I’m finally ready to ship a document, I’m presented with another fullscreen experience that puts everything relating to saving, exporting, or sharing into a clear context. Like almost everything else in Office, it’s cluttered and initially a bit off-putting, but it works well.

I still wish these apps weren’t so daunting. Perhaps Office has moved past “instinctive and friendly to new and light users” and (like Photoshop) committed to its identity as the power apps that can emphatically solve any problem involving words, numbers, or presentations. There’s no lack of light alternatives to Office but seems like Office’s learning curve could be easier.

The apps use distinct color themes, creating a clear sense of space while making the separate apps in the suite feel connected to each other. Office 2013 feels more like a cohesive suite overall. I receive a doc in Outlook that was created by someone else, read her edits, open a chat with her and someone else as we work on it together, I move the doc into a presentation...all without feeling like I’m leaving one island in an archipelago and landing in another. I also like how Office 2013’s app settings move from PC to PC cleanly. I leave my desktop, leave the house with my laptop, arrive at the library and sign in with my Live ID, and everything’s as I left it.

That’s partly due to the success of SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service. Office saves data to your SkyDrive automatically and in a few weeks of using Office across a variety of devices — notebooks, tablets, and phones — it delivered the same “if I created it, it’s here on this device” experience I’m used to getting from iCloud on my Mac and my iOS devices. It’s so good, and so flexible, that I’m tempted to migrate to SkyDrive and away from iCloud and Dropbox for document syncing.

Office’s connection to the cloud goes beyond simple doc and settings syncing. SkyDrive hosts mobile editions of Office that will allow document viewing and Google Docs-style simple editing with on practically any computer or mobile device. If you’re an Office 365 subscriber, you can also use Office On Demand, which “streams” the full, for-real desktop Office apps to any PC running Windows 7 or 8 after you’ve signed in to your Office 365 account. You won’t use up one of your 5 allowed installation seats and the software disappears from the PC when you sign off.

That covers the Windows side of Office. Which leaves several friendly nations yet unheard from.

The MacOS edition of Office traditionally lags about a year behind the Windows version and Office 2013 is no exception. In Office 365, you’re all one Wordin’ Excel’in, PowerPoint-in family, at least. One of your five Office installations can be the latest Mac edition (Office 2011) and when 2013 arrives on the Mac in 2014 — yes, it’s kind of as though Cupertino, California is situated about 9000 time zones to the west of Redmond, Washington — Office 365 subscribers will receive the update without any extra charge.

And what about multitouch PCs? Office 2013 works okay with touchscreen Windows 8 computers. Practically nothing has been done to enhance the experience for multitouch beyond the obvious (a mode that spreads out the user interface elements a bit, to make them easier to tap, and page-turn controls, to name two examples).

OneNote for Windows 8 Modern UI shows what’s possible. It’s a whole iterative step beyond anything we’ve seen the app do on the desktop. It makes me wonder what would happen if the entire Office suite were rebuilt this way. And if it were done so well that it made a cheap tablet into an effective and productive extension of the Office 2013 workspace on the user’s PC or Mac?

Allow me to go into beard-stroking mode. If such a suite were available for Brand X 10” Multitouch Tablet exclusively, it’d have serious consequences for Brands Y and Z. If it were available for all of them…?

I just feel as though a for-real version of Office For Multitouch is similar to what the Beatles music catalog once represented to online music stores. It’s the one major holdout in a brand new world. The device that gets a great multitouch edition of Office will earn a certain instant measure of new credibility. If Microsoft were to release such a suite for all tablet operating systems instead of just Windows 8 Modern UI, the move could conceivably upset the existing balance of power.

Certain kinds of users just want Office, and a set of content consumption apps (Netflix, Kindle, etc.) that are already platform agnostic. What happens when that segment of the market comes to think that a tablet is a tablet is a tablet, regardless of maker? Wouldn’t they start thinking “a tablet is a tablet” and just buy the cheapest model that hasn’t been ragged on too badly in online store ratings?

Well, for now, Microsoft seems to be taking its time and only articulating specific features (like OneNote) that seem tailor-made for ultramobile multitouch. But stay tuned; we might get Sergeant Pepper on our tablets yet.

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