Microsoft has given its venerable Office suite a major revamping and the new version -- now in beta testing and due out next year -- packs a number of new and enhanced features that should be of interest to IT pros and knowledge workers.
This is true for both major flavors of the new Office -- the conventional Office 2013 editions, licensed perpetually for a single device, and the subscription-based Office 365 editions, which are delivered and updated via the cloud, and can be installed on up to 5 Windows or Apple OS X computers per user license.
This article will focus on Office 2013 and Office 365 editions such as Office 2013 Professional and Office 365 ProPlus that are made up of end-user productivity applications, such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and exclude those that include server products, such as Office 365 Enterprise, which comes also with the online versions of the Exchange, Lync and SharePoint servers.
Cloud Storage, Mobility and Developers, Developers
Probably the most dramatic change in the new version of Office is how it's linked to the cloud for a wide variety of purposes in ways that either didn't exist or were much more limited in Office 2010 and previous editions.
For starters, a tight integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive online storage service is intended to make it simple and convenient for end-users to save their files in the cloud both in Office 2013 and Office ProPlus. This ties into the increasingly popular workplace use of services like Box.net, Dropbox and Google Drive, which simplify not only access to files but also sharing them with colleagues, leading to better collaboration.
In addition to files, end-users can also save settings, preferences, templates and other elements to the cloud in Office ProPlus, and access them in multiple Internet-connected devices, a tip of the cap to the increasingly mobile workforce and the BYOD (bring-your-own-device) trend.
Tying with those two trends -- mobility and BYOD -- Office ProPlus lets users access the suite in more than the five Windows or OS X computers where they install it. Through a new feature called Office on Demand, users can do a one-time, temporary streaming of the suite and their documents to a borrowed Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer -- such as those in a hotel business center or an airport lounge. The software and files disappear from the borrowed computer once the user logs off.
Microsoft is also vowing that IT administrators will be able to deploy Office in enterprises in a smoother and faster manner through an improvement in the Click-2-Run virtualization technology first used in Office 2010.
"That's definitely an improvement that IT managers will be interested in," said IDC analyst Melissa Webster.
For enterprise and commercial developers, Microsoft has built a new framework for creating Office applications based on web standards and familiar languages that fit in with the suite's use of the cloud. These new apps can be made available via the new Office Store or internally in corporate app repositories, and they are designed to be embedded in new, more organic ways within Word, Excel and the other Office components.
Office 2013 User Interface Touch Up
Another improvement in the new Office that may be valued by enterprises is its new user interface, which Microsoft says adapts itself to various form factors, including PCs, tablets, "hybrid" laptops and large-screen, all-in-one systems.
On desktop and laptop PCs, the interface is designed for use in a conventional manner with a mouse and keyboard. But when users work on touch- and stylus-based devices like tablets, which have become so popular in workplaces and for which the upcoming Windows 8 OS has also been optimized, the suite's interface supports radial menus, hand gestures like swiping and pinching, and menu items and buttons become larger.
(Although it has ported OneNote and Lync to iOS, Microsoft so far is resisting a full iOS version of Office, a decision some find questionable considering the broad use of iPads and iPhones in enterprises.)
Along the way, the user interface was also cleaned up and streamlined, which may enhance and simplify the user experience for many, leading to more efficient of Office, which has often been criticized in previous versions for its "bloat" of features that most end users ignore or don't understand.
"Organizations will be interested in this [the new user interface] because it makes Office more fun and more productive for end users, as well as potentially less intimidating," said Philipp Karcher, a Forrester Research analyst.
Opening Up Word, Excel, PowerPoint
In Word, knowledge workers are bound to appreciate that the word processing app now opens PDFs and maintains the documents' formatting while editing them.
A new "read mode" is designed to enhance the reading experience in Word, a feature that will probably be most useful when using Office in tablets.
Meanwhile, Excel has gotten more user friendly with features like Flash Fill, which automates input, reformatting and rearranging of data, and with a simpler way of creating pivot tables and doing data analysis.
"The business intelligence capabilities in Excel look pretty promising," said industry analyst Michael Osterman from Osterman Research.
Overall, the new Excel will make more accessible to more employees a number of sophisticated features that until now have been mostly limited to sophisticated "power users", Webster said.
PowerPoint now features more native graphics features and functionality, letting users do layouts, charts and formatting that previously had to be done in external graphic design and illustration applications. A new "presenter view" lets speakers view slide notes while keeping them hidden from the audience.
It is also possible in the new PowerPoint and Word for colleagues to collaborate on a presentation or document by not only posting comments on them but also responding to them in a threaded manner, which is intended to make editing more collaborative and effective.