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

The release of the customer preview of Office 2013 and Office 365 prepares Microsoft's productivity suite for a cloud-connected future. However, Microsoft faces significant challenges in getting all that functionality onto the small screen.

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.