First look: Microsoft Office 2013

The next revision of Office adds touches of Metro without itself being a Metro app

Ever since the first beta editions of Windows 8 appeared, rumors have circulated over how Microsoft would revamp its other flagship consumer product, Office, to be all the more useful in the new OS. Would Office become touch-oriented and Metro-centric, to the exclusion of plain old Windows users?

Now Microsoft has whipped the drapes off the preview edition of Office 2013, providing the short answer to the above question: no. Office 2013 has clearly been revised to work that much better in Windows 8 and on touch-centric devices, but the vast majority of its functionality remains in place. The changes made are mostly cosmetic -- a way to bring the Metro look to Office for users of versions of Windows other than 8. Further, Office 2013 has been designed to integrate more closely with online storage and services (mainly Microsoft's), although those are thankfully optional and not mandatory.

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The new look and feelMicrosoft has demonstrated before how the Metro look can be ported to apps that don't run on the Metro desktop -- such as the ill-fated Zune client. Office 2013 is the latest test case, but for the most part, the Metro look is confined to places where it makes sense: the File tab, for instance, or what Microsoft has called the "backstage areas" of Office. Even when Office 2013 is installed on Windows 8, it runs on the conventional Windows desktop -- yes, even when Windows 8 is itself installed on a slate PC.

Aside from the Metro makeover, you're likely to notice a certain detail about Office 2013, one that many people also noticed with Windows 8 itself: an expanded degree of integration with Microsoft's Windows Live. Office can be used in a local mode, without being attached to any online service. Sign into Windows Live via Office, however, and the "open or create documents" pane that appears upon opening an Office app will contain a link to your SkyDrive account, where users get a handy 25GB of storage for starters. The hard part, at least in the preview beta, is signing back out; the Office preview only lets you switch Live IDs, not sign out completely and use Office only in local mode again.

The Account pane shows all the online services (Microsoft and otherwise) currently connected to your copy of Office. Additional services at this time include LinkedIn, Flickr, and YouTube.

Most of us are likely to use Office, whatever version of it, with a physical keyboard of some kind. (I'm typing this right now on just such a peripheral.) That said, Microsoft touts Office 2013's close integration with the Windows 8 onscreen keyboard as a major attraction point for both the suite and the OS.

The new Win8 onscreen keyboard is indeed a major improvement over its Windows 7 counterpart, if only because it never commits the cardinal sin of idiotically covering up what you're typing: onscreen content is automatically moved around whenever the keyboard is invoked. Windows 8's onscreen keyboard is also much more responsive when typing, and it provides autosuggestions that actually work. Plus, it's a little easier to select and manipulate objects in Office than in previous versions of both Windows and Office.

The Windows 8 onscreen keyboard for touch devices is designed to integrate well with Office 2013. It's still no substitute for the real thing, but it makes actual work that much more possible.

Office 2013 provides another small but useful touch-centric addition called Touch Mode. When activated (there's a shortcut for it in the Quick Access Toolbar), it makes all the menu and toolbar elements in Office a little larger, and therefore easier to single out with a finger or stylus. The change in size is not dramatic enough to shove visual elements offscreen or significantly reduce the expanse of the document area, but it's enough to make it much easier to target buttons on the ribbon or other normally hard-to-hit elements.

Office 2013's touch mode makes visual elements in Office a little more widely spaced, and thus easier to single out via a touch interface. At top, touch mode off; at bottom, touch mode on. The blue circle in the Quick Access Toolbar toggles Touch Mode.

What hasn't changed? A lot, actually. The vast majority of the Office 2007/2010 look and feel -- the ribbon, the Quick Access Toolbar -- remains the same, albeit with a different color scheme. A few minute changes do catch the eye, though, such as the service-login box in the upper-right corner of each Office app. When you're logged in with Windows Live, it shows your username and icon, and it lets you switch user accounts, add or modify online services, and change some minimal Office theming features. The latter mostly consists of a little window-margin decoration in the same general area as the service-login box, in about the same manner as the skins one might add to Firefox.

Many new Office features, apart from the general Metro makeover, are minor. Comment tracking in Office 2013 (here, specifically, in Word) allows comments from multiple authors to be tracked like a message board conversation. Note also the revised navigation pane at right, which is that much clearer and easier to use than in previous editions of Word.

Some other minimal changes are the kind you only blunder across at random. The Status Bar at the bottom of each Office app has been restyled to match the general Metro look of the suite. Not bad, but as is often the case with Microsoft products, some familiar elements have been arbitrarily yanked. The shortcut to Draft mode in Word, for instance, isn't there anymore. This was annoying for me since I use Draft mode constantly with most documents.

Other changes are fairly blatant, and the better for it. When you switch to the File tab and elect to open a document, you're given not only a list of recently opened documents but a list of locations (folders, network paths) where documents were recently opened. For someone like me, who's constantly squirrelling around in the same directories for different files, this is a godsend.

The biggest feature being touted with Office 2013 that isn't actually part of Office itself is the suite's online integration, both with services like SkyDrive and with Office 365. Most of the latter is still in the vein of allowing people without a copy of Office to see and interact with an Office document, even if the feature set isn't as complete as the full program. Being able to save documents directly to a common cloud location is handy, even if many of the same features can be had with earlier versions of Office via a service like Dropbox.

Beneath the Metro veneerMost of the actual feature additions to each Office app are incremental, not revolutionary. A few convenient new features have been added here and there, some rough edges smoothed down, but for the most part these apps are Office as we remember them from 2007 and 2010.

Some of the cleanup is mostly a matter of being able to find features, a problem that has plagued Office for many years. The problem is, Microsoft never seems to go far enough. For example, in Word, the new Design tab is where all the document-theming controls live now. These used to be jammed into a subset of the Page Layout tab and were consequently hard to find. Fine, but why not just take the type-to-search-the-ribbon function, which was available as an add-on for previous versions of Office, and make that a standard feature? That right there would solve many of the organizational issues.

One widely touted feature in Word 2013 is the ability to open and edit PDFs -- which amounts to Word having a native filter that converts PDFs to Word documents. It's useful, but limited: The simpler the PDF, the more likely it is to survive the conversion with its formatting intact.

I fed Word a few book-length PDFs just to see what would happen. They were mostly preserved, but certain kinds of formatting elements -- the positions of page breaks, the lengths of lines with tabs, and headers and footers -- were regularly mangled. I do see this feature as being useful for creating an editable document if you have only a PDF copy of a file (I'm dealing with it right now, actually!), but the end result still requires a lot of manual tweaking.

Some other little features, though, are just right. I especially liked the way Word remembers your last position in a Word document when you reopen a file -- handy if you're plowing through a long, complex work over several sessions. A revised navigation pane makes it easier to jump through a document via predefined markers like outline levels. Comments now have what could be called a conversational feature set: You and your collaborators can trade comments back and forth, then mark them as completed when the issues in question are addressed.

I'm not a bean-counter or number-cruncher, so many of the changes in Excel are a bit to the left of my usual beat. Most of them are either touch-behavior enhancements (such as flicking through a table) or compliance mechanisms (the ability to audit changes in a spreadsheet is handy), or they're aids to cut down on the amount of repetitive work that spreadsheets involve. For instance, Flash Fill purports to be a kind of autocomplete for repetitive data filling. You enter a few examples of what you want, and Excel attempts to intuit the rest of the pattern for you. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to pick up on any of the patterns I used. The Metro look, by the way, also suits Excel pretty nicely. It makes staring at tables full of numbers a little less painful.

Excel's Metro-izing has changed the functionality of the application very little; note the right-click contextual-editing menu, which is much the same as before.

Most people I know who use PowerPoint feel its feature set has peaked, so most of the really useful changes involve controlling presentations, especially when working with a projector or big display. For example, if you have a second display connected, PowerPoint attempts to detect it and automatically place the presentation there, with your notes and your slide overview (including a glimpse at what's next) confined to your notebook's own display. PowerPoint also adds a clutch of share-to-the-cloud and collaborate-in-the-cloud features, among them the ability to show a presentation to someone who doesn't have Office, via a Web browser. (Word has the same functionality.)

Of all the apps in the suite, Outlook is the one that has received the most radical Metro makeover. The good news is that Outlook actually benefits from the changes. I spend a good deal of my time in Outlook -- not just for my email but for task lists, calendars, pretty much everything Outlook offers -- and I found myself quite liking the appearance of Outlook with a Metro-esque visual style.

In previous versions of Outlook, access to different functions -- mail, calendar, contacts, to do, and so on -- was provided through a row of icons along the bottom of the window. Those icons are now text, with a twist. Hover the mouse over any one of those items, and a "peek" view of the item in question comes up. This gives you quick access to those features without having to pin them in the default view or switch views entirely.

Many of the other improvements for Outlook are in the same vein: incremental, but handy. I liked the reply/reply-all/forward buttons at the top of a message in the preview pane, as well as the little three-day weather forecast strip at the top of the calendar. Another useful option, albeit one buried in the settings for a given email account, is a slider that controls how much mail is stored locally vs. how much is retained on the server. It's useful mostly for IMAP accounts (such as Gmail), where on-server storage is more common than with POP/SMTP.

The Metro look for Office is best demonstrated by Outlook 2013, which gives the program the clean-lined look of a paper day planner. Note the quick-reply buttons at the top of the message preview.

Just enough MetroIn the run-up to Office 2013's preview release, speculation flew fast and far about how much the new Office would be beholden to Windows 8. Most widely argued was whether or not the suite would be Metro-centric, or at least have certain elements deployed on top of Metro.

Microsoft decided not to go that route, and the reasons seem twofold. One, all signs hint that Windows 8 is not going to displace the existing market for Windows 7; instead, the two OSes will sell side by side (shades of Windows XP and Windows Vista). This means making any significant amount of Office functionality Metro-only would be a mistake.

Two, Metro is an environment designed for what others have called "lean-back mode." It's a consumption environment, not a production one. The only parts of Office 2013 that would make sense being Metro-ized are the likes of document overview or print preview modes -- and both remain safely on the legacy desktop.

Instead, Microsoft has given Office 2013 a Metro-style makeover without making it an actual Metro app. The word "Metro" doesn't even appear in the reviewer's guide handed out for testers of the beta. Microsoft also added a few key touch-centric features -- again, just enough to make Office useful on a touch system without forcing people to rely on it.

What we have here, then, is an Office designed to be transitional in more ways than one. Aside from a way to ease people into using a Metro-styled app without actually throwing them headfirst into Metro, Office 2013 is also a way to get people more accustomed to using cloud-based services casually, as a primary extension of their existing applications instead of a secondary adjunct to them. It is evolution on multiple fronts without being a revolution on any one of them. Whether or not that's enough to stave off competition and attrition is something we'll only find out once Windows 8 and Office 2013 are released for real.

This article, "First look: Microsoft Office 2013," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in applications and Windows at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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