Microsoft will release the next full version of Microsoft Office in the second half of 2015, according to a blog entry by Julia White, general manager of product marketing for Office and who is also part of the Office 365 team. This release keeps to Microsoft’s practice of issuing a new version of Office every three years, with the most recent being Office 2013.
This new version, which as you’d expect will be called Office 2016, is designed specifically for computers with a mouse and keyboard. Both the Windows and MacOS versions of the product will have the same name and are expected to be released around the same time.
Office remains an important product for enterprises since the vast majority of enterprise computers run major portions of Office, including Outlook, Word and PowerPoint, even if they don’t fully implement the full suite of content creation tools.
It’s not clear at this point whether the fact that the announcement came from the Office 365 team was significant. Currently, Office subscribers get a version of Office 2013 that’s continually updated. The practice in the past has been that Office 365 users get the new version and new features as they’re released, so it seems likely that Office 2016 will reach subscription users in the same way.
What Microsoft isn’t saying is whether Office 365 will be the primary released edition. Currently, the perpetually licensed version of Office 2013 (or earlier versions) is what is in place at most companies.
The reason has as much to do with licensing polices as it does with technology. In the past, large enterprises have had some very favorable licensing deals available when they’re buying in large numbers, which is part of the reason Office is very much a corporate standard.
But, these days, Microsoft has shown a strong fondness for selling software on a subscription arrangement, so it may be that the default deal for corporations will become some type of subscription.
However, not all companies will favor a subscription sales model, if only because it adds complexity to their management environment. But if an enterprise plans to keep its existing copies of Office for longer than around three years, then the subscription will also cost more.
Microsoft said in its blog post that the new version of Office will offer “compelling new experiences.” I suspect this actually translates into meaning that Office will have some cool new features that you don’t know that you want or need yet.
Right now, there’s little indication what those new features might be. Preliminary reports indicate some changes in the appearance of some icons on the ribbon bar, but little else.
Microsoft Likely to Release Office 2016 Later This Year
When I asked a Microsoft spokesperson what the company has planned, all she would say was, “There will be great new experiences, which will add to the full Office suite you’ve already been familiar with.”
I’m not sure that enterprise users are ready for great new experiences as much as they might be ready for features that add to stability, ease of use or ease of customization.
Another question may well be which parts of Office are being heavily modified. Considering that a significant number of Office users spend their day with Outlook constantly open, there’s probably room for better visualizations or easier modification.
There are, of course, already some major changes coming for OneNote, some of which were demonstrated during the Windows 10 announcement on Jan. 21.
These changes include the ability to use OneNote as an electronic whiteboard, which can then save and distribute copies to meeting participants. This was demonstrated on the new Microsoft Surface Hub, which is a wall-sized PC with an 84-inch screen, where the electronic whiteboard was effective and, quite frankly, pretty cool.
But in reality, the heavy lifting in Microsoft Office for most users is Word and Outlook. These applications need to perform at least as well as they do already, and they need to be easier and more effective than they are with Office 2013 for people to bother to upgrade.
This speaks to the likelihood that Microsoft intends to release yet another stand-alone desktop version of Office 2016. After all, if the company was just planning to introduce a new release of Office 365, the upgrades would be automatically available in the cloud. But with a new stand-alone version, Microsoft has to convince customers to order it.
Perhaps the fact that Microsoft is planning to release a series of Office Universal Apps for smartphones and tablets might provide some additional insight. To be useful as Office moves into the next stage of its product lifecycle, the ability to closely integrate with the phone and tablet apps would be extremely useful and something that you can’t really do with Office 2013.
Right now, though, it’s still early. I asked Microsoft whether there will be a preview version of Office available for IT departments to evaluate before the general availability of the product, but the company spokesperson wasn’t able to confirm whether this would happen. Fortunately, some beta testing is under way, so at least some information is beginning to filter out.
In the past, Microsoft has provided detailed information to IT departments so that managers could plan for the transition. Considering the value of the enterprise market to Microsoft, it seems likely that corporate users will be able to get something to work with. We’ll let you know as soon as we find out anything useful.