The Office team must be working overtime. First there are versions of this productivity suite for iPad and Android tablets, then a Windows 10 app preview, then a 2016 Mac preview, and now this. The official Office 2016 desktop preview is finally available. Sort of.
This preview is targeted at IT departments and developers. As such, it requires a cumbersome download process that involves signing up for the beta through Microsoft Connect and accessing the proper install files from the Microsoft File Transfer Manager. It also necessitates a full Office 365 subscription, and can’t coexist with Office 2013 for whatever reason, but can with the Windows 10 app versions.
Also, this version seems far from the initial commercial release. As Microsoft VP Kirk Koenigsbauer explained, “To be clear, this early build doesn’t yet contain all the features we’re planning to ship in the final product.”
Considering its intended base, many of the features are back-end changes. Those include:
- Data Loss Protection for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint
- RPC-based sync has been replaced with MAPI-HTTP in Exchange and Outlook to provide faster and more stable connections
- Multi-factor authentication in Outlook through Active Directory Authentication Library
- Foreground network calls have been eliminated for a more responsive Outlook on unreliable networks
DLP is a big deal, and will directly impact many enterprise end users. It’s already available on Microsoft’s cloud and sharing services, in addition to Exchange and Outlook. With it, IT admins can create and enforce policies that restrict sharing potentially sensitive or confidential information. For example, it might prevent an end user from putting confidential sales data into a PowerPoint presentation, or emailing customer data.
For End Users
That’s not to suggest there is nothing but limitations in store for Office 2016 users. In fact, there are significant changes and features that should make many Office users happy.
First and foremost, the Office programs adhere to the same color scheme set forth by the recent Android and iOS releases. Word is blue, Excel green, and PowerPoint red, which is very pronounced in the ribbon area atop the programs. Outlook and Visio are a lighter shade of blue; seems an odd design choice given there are more colors in the rainbow than blue, red, and green. This is all part of the new “Colorful” Office Theme, though the White and Gray options remain in various shades for those put off by potentially garish styling.
Within Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, users will find the same menu options for File, Home, Insert, etc., but also a new “Tell me what you want to do…” search box. This long overdue addition, which first appeared in the Office Online service last year, searches Office commands with a simple keyword and activates them with a click. So a search for “pages” brings up options for inserting page breaks, viewing multiple pages, adding a cover, and more.
Like the excellent Windows 8.1 search, it has proven quick and quite adept in our testing, making it a welcome addition given the programs’ feature glut and the opaque nature of Office dropdowns. Here’s hoping it comes to Outlook soon as that has long been the least user-friendly Office offering, at least among the big four that also includes Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.
Another, perhaps more slight addition concerns the “File” area, where attached cloud services like OneDrive and Sharepoint are identified by email address. This should help users balancing work and personal accounts on the same device.
Despite not asking users what they “want to do,” Outlook has some new features. The program is much more responsive in the new Web sense than ever before, and adjusts according to the display orientation or window size, always prioritizing the message body. Sending attachments is much easier as well thanks to a “Recent Items” dropdown that enables access to the most recent Office files and pictures. From there, Outlook gives users the option to send an online edit or view link for Office files in lieu of the actual file. Finally, Outlook can now be set to sync and download fewer messages locally at 1, 3, 7, and 14 days instead of the standard month in older versions, according to Microsoft.
For Tablet Users
Unfortunately, the new desktop Office has little to make it more tablet friendly than previous versions, at least Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Like the most recent Office for the desktop, 2016 retains the swappable touch and mouse modes, which are accessible by a drop down on the very top nav, above “File,” “Insert,” and the others.
The difference between touch and mouse modes is limited to the size and space between dropdowns and other elements. Even for mouse users, the touch mode presents a less claustrophobic and overall better experience.
Outlook’s new responsive design should win over some tablet users. It works very well in portrait mode, and the Recent Items attachment option alleviates Windows folder diving and precise finger tapping that entails.
Given the early nature of the build and promise of new features, Microsoft could include some new pen features, especially for Surface Pro owners. Here’s hoping.
Merged Office Versions
With 2016, it looks like Microsoft is merging its online and Office 365 features with the Office app aesthetics for one complete version. That puts Office 2016 somewhere between an incremental upgrade and significant overhaul in terms of updates.
It also creates potential confusion for users. As it stands, our Windows 10 test machine has the Office 2016 preview installed right next to the scaled back Word, Excel, and PowerPoint preview apps – the same ones already available for Android tablets and the iPad. What’s Microsoft going to do to distinguish one from the other, because they look similar as shortcuts on the Start screen?
It’s easy to see how a user could have the same document or spreadsheet open congruently on the different version of Word and Excel, making changes back and forth and generally muddying up the editing process. Here’s hoping Microsoft has a syncing solution that just works, because there is real potential for the kind of Office headaches that drive users to free alternatives like Google Drive.