Microsoft Office 2013, Office 365 Tap Into Windows 8 Metro Interface

By Cameron Sturdevant  |  Posted 2012-07-16

Microsoft Office 2013, Office 365 Tap Into Windows 8 Metro Interface

The Microsoft Office 2013 customer preview of the on-premises productivity suite and Office 365€”the cloud-based versions of the productivity suite€”focus on mobile devices and touch-based user interfaces. IT managers who are charged with equipping stationary, as well as mobile, workers with the these full-fledged email, document processing, presentation, spreadsheet and socially aware collaboration tools will likely find Office 2013 and Office 365 a compelling refresh of familiar productivity tools, including Outlook, Word, PowerPoint and Excel.  

eWEEK Labs tested Office 2013 customer preview running on a variety of mobile and desktop end-user devices€”most of them running the Windows 8 release preview operating system. My tests showed that the tools are similar enough to Office 2007 or Office 2010 that the latest version should entice veteran users. At the same time, these two new versions of Office can also help IT workers adapt to the tablet and smartphone devices that play an increasingly important role in the lives of high-value business professionals. The ribbon of functionality areas across the top of the products is only slightly changed in this version of Office.

Large swaths of Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, along with other components in the suite, have gained touch-oriented interfaces. However, my tests showed that users will likely keep their hands on a keyboard, when one is available, as it was difficult to accurately tap into the crowded toolbars and menu dropdowns that are the hallmark of content-creation applications. Even using the stylus on a test Samsung Series 7 XE700T1A tablet provided by Microsoft, it was difficult to accurately hit the precise area on the 11.1-inch screen to get my desired result, whether that was selecting an option or hitting the €œclose€ button.

The Metro interface that Microsoft uses in the Windows 8 operating system preview is fully realized in Office 2013. The flying tiles, streamlined layout and generally less cluttered user interface is startling. The good news is that almost everything that enterprises have trained productivity workers to do in previous versions of Office remains, for the most part, undisturbed. For example, I was able to customize my email signature in Outlook 2013 using the same convoluted route (file | options | mail | signatures | new ) as Office 2010 and earlier versions.

The changes that Microsoft has made should take users only a couple of days to get used to. These updates primarily center around revealing toolbars that have been hidden to make more room on the constrained display space of tablets and smartphones.

My tests were mainly conducted with a Lenovo W510 ThinkPad mobile workstation that has a touch-enabled screen. The W510 proved to be my €œgo-to€ machine for most testing. Equipped with an Intel Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM and a generous 15.6-inch screen, the system was ideal for letting me use the Office 2013 touch interface when it made sense (swiping quickly to move objects), and the keyboard and mouse at all other times. In addition, content-creation applications, which include all the products in the Office suite, are just easier to work with in a larger-screen environment. The same can€™t be said of the tablet form factor.

I used Office 2013 on the Samsung Series 7 tablet when I attended meetings in conference rooms, while commuting and at home. Because almost every aspect of using Office 2013 (and every other productivity suite I€™ve used) requires two hands to be effective, cradling the 7-inch by 11-inch Samsung Series 7 only worked when I was showing a document or presentation, not when I was creating one.

Office 2013 comes in a variety of SKUs. For a detailed list of the Office editions that are available for testing today please read my blog entry on the topic.

Enhanced Features in Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint

Aside from the overall changes brought about by the Metro interface, here is a look at some of the new or enhanced features in Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Subsequent reviews will evaluate Lync 2013, Microsoft€™s unified communications and presence tool, OneNote 2013, Publisher 2013, Access 2013 and InfoPath 2013.

Probably the biggest change in Outlook 2013€”Microsoft€™s email, calendaring, contact and to-do application€”is the unification of these functions on the main application page. In Outlook 2013, there are four oversized hot spots labeled €œmail, calendar, people, tasks€ at the lower left position. When I selected one of these options, the main display shifted to that functional area without opening a new window. It will be easier for office workers to use Outlook 2013 without creating a mushroom field of different windows. I was easily able to look through my email, schedule meetings, organize my contacts (now called €œPeople€) and keep track of my tasks in using the new interface.

Long-time users of Outlook who shift to using the application on a tablet or smaller, touch- enabled device like a smartphone should adjust quickly to using finger taps to call up the menu bar, which is otherwise hidden to save space. Probably the biggest adjustment I had to make was getting used to hitting the €œfile€ menu pulldown. Instead of just dropping down the familiar menu, which is the result from tapping any of the other menu options, an airbag-like menu bar slides in from the left. The function menu items in the file menu, including €œprint,€ are large and easy to hit with a finger tap. Functions on the other menu dropdowns (Home | Send/Receive | Folder |View) retain a familiar look and feel. For me, this meant it was much harder to select items with a finger tap when I was working quickly.

The €œPeople Peek,€ or summary card, is available anywhere in the Office 2013 suite, but is especially useful in Outlook. New in the Office 2013 customer preview is the ability to link Office components with social networks, including Facebook and LinkedIn. I was able to connect Outlook 2013 with my LinkedIn account, which then pulled in social media information about my contacts, including photos and other social media activity into the Peek card.

IT managers should highlight this linking capability in front of their organizations' human resources and legal departments right away. Much of the information can be controlled using Microsoft Active Directory Group Policy settings. IT managers should become familiar with the controls so that privileged personal information isn€™t sucked into corporate data stores and applications.

IT developers and applications managers should be aware that Microsoft provides API access to tasks, people, locations and other commonly seen data in Office 2013 so that applications can provide additional help to users. For example, in Outlook 2013, if information that looked like an address appeared in an email, a map link appeared at the top of the message box. Application managers should plan now on evaluating the fitness and suitability of these add-on apps for their organizations.

New in Word, Excel, PowerPoint

Much of what I€™ve said above about the Metro interface changes in Outlook applies equally to Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Tapping the file menu in any of these applications slides in an oversized menu bar that is easier to work than the other menu dropdowns when I was using a touch-screen device.

My tests of Word 2013 showed that it does well in maintaining document fidelity in full editing mode. Opening a document from either the Outlook previewer or in the revised €œreading mode€ didn€™t work well when viewing heavily formatted files.

Word picked up an alignment feature from Microsoft€™s Visio diagramming tool that made it much easier for me to center elements such as pictures in my documents. I was also able to align video widgets in my documents, a new feature that enabled me to add video directly without first saving it to my PC.

Excel gains incremental productivity €œEaster Eggs€ that just appear when tables and other data are selected. These changes include recommended charts and pivot table options. Like the alignment feature in Word, these changes make it easier for experienced users to create more professional content without spending a lot of time fussing with design choices.

Similarly, PowerPoint 2013 gained professional enhancements, including widescreen themes, an improved presenter view, including the ability to see slides in a grid while presenting just one slide to the audience.

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