Microsoft has released a new Customer Preview demo of its upcoming Office 2013 (aka Office 15) suite, and we’ve spent a few hours with the product to get a feel for what we can expect when the full version drops in early 2013. According to Microsoft, Office 2013 is a cloud-based product with a physical, licensed-for-perpetuity option for those who aren’t willing to sign up for a subscription service. It’s Metroesque without being a full implementation of Metro, and it’s very much a product in transition.
According to Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, Office 2013 is “a service first.” The executive, who’s come under fire in recent months for the company’s lackluster stock price over the past decade, claimed that Office 2013 is “the most ambitious release of Office we’ve ever done.”
As part of that “service first” mentality, Office 2013 is effectively being rolled into Office 365 and now comes in a Home Premium subscription flavor. Up to now, Office 365 was strictly a business product; Microsoft hopes to change that by integrating features like SkyDrive and offering a multi-license family pack. Sign up for Office Home Premium, and you receive a license for up to five devices (which, of course, Microsoft hopes will be a bunch of Surface tablets).
Buying Office 2013
Cloud integration comes in the form of “Office on Demand,” which lets you stream the software to a system where it isn’t installed, edit documents remotely, and then save the files online. Files, in Office 2013, are saved to your SkyDrive account by default, and customers opting for the Home Premium edition will be rewarded with 60 minutes of Skype access per month and an additional 20GB of SkyDrive storage space.
As a one-time offer, that’s a pretty attractive package. As a subscription, it’s considerably more dicey. The problem Microsoft faces with this approach is that the vast majority of home users rarely buy Office upgrades (assuming they bought it in the first place). For example, I upgraded to Office 2007 because I wanted the new graphing engine that debuted in Excel that year. I haven’t bought a new copy since, because the 2007 version of Excel does everything I need it to. I don’t know if my Microsoft Word needs have changed since 1997; my parents still use Word 2003 and I had no trouble working with it while visiting.
A full copy of Office 2010 Home & Student is $119.45 for a single PC, $149.95 for up to three PCs. That includes Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint. We don’t yet know the price of the Home Premium subscription flavor. In my use-case (a five-year upgrade cycle), assuming I needed three licenses, that works out $9.93 per license, per year. Unless Microsoft makes Home Premium ridiculously cheap, it’ll cost significantly more to subscribe over five years than it will to just buy a license for $119. The five-license offer might be great for people who actually need five licenses, but I suspect that even in a family household, only 1-2 computers actually need to be running the latest and greatest Office flavor.
Using Office 2013
During Install, Office prompts you to sign in using Windows Live. It then configures your SkyDrive and attaches a link under Favorites in Windows Explorer.
When you click on File in Office 13, you’re presented with the following (we’re using MS Word as our example application):
Select a location and the familiar file dialog window will open in the requisite location. One of the peculiarities of the new interface, however, is the way double and single clicks are treated. Double-click on any of the locations under “Places” and a file dialog box opens in that location. Single-click on any of the locations one column to the right, and the same thing happens. The SkyDrive integration is a useful feature for keeping documents available, and it automatically saves both locally and online.
As for the main editing interface, here’s a set of screenshots showing the default view in Office 2007 and Office 2013. Note that in Office 2013, the “W” at the top-left corner is strictly for resizing the window or closing the application. The old file dialogs that were accessed by the Start button in Word 2007/2010 are now under File.
Word 2007′s default screen
One major difference, and something it’s hard for me to get past, is that Word 2013 literally makes my eyes hurt. To be fair, I have problems with eye strain anyway, but the unrelenting white/black contrast in Word means there’s nowhere else to look, even for a second. Excel is even worse.
Humans have a well-known bias that causes us to conflate familiarity and quality, so I’m purposefully not going to poke too hard at the new chromeless UI. My gut feeling, however, is that Microsoft’s relentless simplification has created a design that makes it harder to identify specific items. In Office 2007, the Ribbon’s Clipboard, Font, Alignment, and Number options all have a slightly different background. It helps set them apart as individual sub-groups within the overall Ribbon. In the new versions, the subtle color variation that identified them as sub-groups are gone.
Find and Replace gets an overhaul
One function that’s been substantially overhauled is Find & Replace. This function has scarcely changed over the past decade, but in Office 2013 the familiar Ctrl-F box has been supplanted by the Navigation pane.
The Navigation window’s search options are accessible and intuitively easy to understand, but the old Ctrl-PgUp/PgDn method of moving between Find, Replace, and Go To doesn’t work anymore.
You click the little down arrow, then choose “Advanced Find” for the old-style F&R window
I’ve focused on Find and Replace because its both a simple function everyone uses and an example of how poorly Metro interfaces with Word’s conventional layout and structure. Spell check has been given a similar overhaul, though it still functions much the same. One annoying difference — instead of simply completing, now it tries to offer pick-me-ups.
The new F&R function is great at finding things, but if you actually need to edit what you find, you’re back in Old Word. Back when Windows 8 was a year away from launch, a lot of people assumed that Microsoft would fix these jarring transitions and find a way to smooth them out.
That no longer seems to be the case. It very much appears that these jarring overlaps are precisely what Redmond intends to ship. Neither the Building Windows 8 blog nor Windows 8 itself have addressed what many desktop users see as a core problem — Metro’s organizational system is a poor fit for the desktop, and Windows often bounces between Metro-style windows and classic desktop functionality depending on what setting you’re trying to adjust or what program you need to run.
Metro is fine. The Metro/Desktop collision isn’t.
The biggest problem with Office 2013 isn’t Metro — it’s the way Metro and the Classic Office environment clash. Apart from the GUI changes, Word looks like Word — until you hit Ctrl-F. Unlike clicking on File, which brings up an obvious Metro-style menu, the “Navigation” tab that slides in could be a standard feature in regular office. You don’t necessarily know it’s Metro until you start trying to do things. The spellchecker, for example, is also Metroesque.
Unlike Windows, which is more-or-less a guaranteed revenue stream for Microsoft as long as people keep buying computers, Office pushback could have a real effect on sales. I’m hard-pressed to think of a reason why any desktop user would want to use Office 2013 over previous versions. Sure, the whole “If you’re on a tablet…” adage applies, but really, how many tablet owners are pining for Office software? More to the point, how many tablet owners prioritize Office software yet don’t have a way to connect a wireless keyboard and mouse?
Interacting with Metro means taking my eyes off my work and switching from “Get things done” mode to “Figure it out” mode. As an IT journalist, I’m used to wearing both hats, and it’s still enormously distracting. That distraction makes it hard to imagine recommending a “Desktro” (MetTop?) version of Office to anyone. I find myself instinctively looking for keyboard shortcuts rather than dealing with Metro. That might be normal for a neckbearded Linux user, but I’ve never been a keyboard shortcut person. This morning, I learned that F12 = Save As — because I’d rather learn a new keyboard shortcut than have to click on the word File, than double-click a preliminary save option, then single-click a directory, then type a file name.
The SkyDrive integration is nifty and the consumer subscription service might be a good deal depending on price, but the idea of training average business users to navigate Office’s pseudo-Metro interface summons images of a DO NOT WANT sign lit in brilliant red neon with letters they could read on Pluto.
Hopefully, future iterations of the product will fix these problems, but after watching them persist in Windows 8, with that OS barely a month from RTM, I’m not optimistic. Despite the fact that the transition could be even rockier in Office, due to the business-centric nature of the product, Microsoft is determinedly pushing ahead with this new paradigm.