Microsoft held a press conference today to announce the general availability of an Office 15 preview [download link]. There were two imperatives that Microsoft wanted to achieve in the press conference: 1) to convince consumers that the new Office wasn’t just a tweaked upgrade to Office 2010, but was–in Steve Ballmer’s massively overused word “modern”– and 2) to show the cream of the new features in order to create the impression that Office 15 is a “gotta have” product. The press conference failed at both.
The outstanding impressions I have after viewing the press conference are that the new Office is a transitional mule designed to carry Microsoft over the continental divide between desktop and cloud-based computing, but whose longevity beyond the trek may be strictly limited. I say this because the features demonstrated by Kirk Koenigsbauer (the tech who actually knows what he is doing who took over for Steve after the initial sales salvo) were unimpressive variations on what you can already do in the current office. There was nothing groundbreaking, no gee whiz moments. Sure, full Office now runs on an ARM-based tablet (a not inconsiderable accomplishment, of course) with touch sensitivity. You can pinch enlarge/decrease picture sizes and drag them around in the text, but this is not exactly new, and just a small variation on what you can already do with the mouse. I was waiting for a feature that I hadn’t seen in Office before, but was disappointed.
The developers took what was possible in old Office (like presenter mode on two monitors in PowerPoint) and merged the two monitors into one on the tablet. A helpful feature, but hardly new. I was looking for pan and zoom, at least, so that PowerPoint could stay competitive with Prezi, the program that has been eating Microsoft’s lunch among power presenters, but no. Sure the new Office has “slide zoom,” but that is hardly the same. The closest the demo came to something new was the new simplified formulas in Excel that allowed intuitive combining and extraction from cells without having to know the way the formulas actually work. And this, after all, is pretty minor stuff, and is predicated on the user knowing what is possible in the first place, which is the real problem.
Finally, Microsoft seems inexplicably wed to the concept of “inking.” That is, using a pen or stylus on the screen to hand annotate documents. Neither is this new. In fact, Microsoft has been beating this dead horse for over a decade. It didn’t catch on then and it won’t now, and it is inexplicable how much emphasis they placed on it. (In fact, the only part of Mr. Koenigsbauer’s demo that blew up was an attempt to ink annotate on the new PPI 80-inch display at the end of his demo. Anyone who does demos has to feel for him, and, by the way, Mr. Ballmer said Microsoft was working hard to bring down the price point on that giant display).
It is obvious that this iteration of Office is intended to move us onto the cloud and to cement us as subscribers, rather than purchasers of Office. You will still be able to purchase stand-alone versions of the programs to run locally, but this may be the last iteration of Office where this will be possible. Microsoft is obviously jumping on the subscription model as a long-term bet to continued profitability and market dominance. It may not be a great idea, but it certainly is modern.
For detailed reviews of Office 15 (or Office 2013 as it is often called) and its individual component programs, see the following ars technica articles: