Microsoft released the 17th major version of Office today, Office 2016. It is 25 years since Office came from nowhere to dominate against the incomparable Wordperfect 5.1 and Lotus 1-2-3. Office adoption was rapid and near universal, exploding alongside Windows and becoming so strongly associated with Windows that many believed they were part of the same product.
Over those 25 years, each new version of office included major improvements and new features. Each release was a big deal, though on average less so as Office matured. Office 2016 again offers significant improvements over 2013, though with evolutionary improvements rather than a radical overhaul.
How does Office stack up in the age of the app? Is it still relevant? Some say that “apps” can replace massive traditional applications such as Office. So far the depth and breadth of features needed for office tasks has helped keep Office at the forefront of content creation in business and home environments. Yet the success of technically simple and shallow apps, that perhaps do just one thing very well, must be a lesson for the old guard. How can an application like office improve by taking lessons from the success of modern apps?
This time, its different
Unlike any previous version, this time round many users will receive an upgrade to 2016 as part of their Office 365 subscription. The Office 2016 release is a genuine rollout for the first time in history, rather than a launch.
Recent corporate focus on subscription models seemed, at first, a financial driven change aimed at developing consistent revenue and providing a one stop ecosystem of products for a single fee. Subscription bundles are a change to a revenue per customer focus rather than a revenue per product focus, and makes use of competitive advantage from a company with a vast breadth and depth of product. Bundling products into a single fee also encourages the adoption of new products and services that may not take off if sold individually. Those elements are without doubt an important part of this strategy, but there is more to it.
I see subscription as a model facilitating the adoption of a rapid, agile way of developing software. A change designed to compete in the age of apps. Continuous improvement is executed with frequent updates, and features released one at a time rather than saved up for a single big change every so many years. Agile and iterative development. Listening to what the customer wants, and making it happen. Fast. Without a subscription based model, frequent releases can’t work.
With subscription in place and growing, expect to see the end of major releases in the not too distant future. The old model will be replaced with subscriptions, continuous development of core applications, and a growing ecosystem of supporting apps that integrate and complement core applications. I see a strong future for office as the centre of this ecosystem.
What’s Changed? – Collaboration and Intelligence is the Focus
You will notice an incremental improvement in the user interface and appearance of Office 2016, nothing major or unfamiliar, just a bit of polish. This is no bad thing, with no Windows 8 disruption to be seen here.
Collaboration tools and Cloud integration have received substantive improvements and are, perhaps, a compelling reason to upgrade for those improvements alone. Microsoft has caught up with Google Docs and its own online versions of office with real-time collaboration now available in the desktop version of Office.
Word 2016 improves the co-authoring feature, with ongoing improvements across the suite likely to be added via patches. Changes made across multiple authors now propagate automatically, removing the annoyance and possible conflicts and time wasting where changes had to be updated and refreshed manually.
Office is more tightly integrated with Skype for Business, a product under rapid development in its own right. So far this is a quality of life improvement for people wanting to chat via skype while collaborating on a project. Tight integration of Unified Communications via Skype for Business will likely be rolled out over time.
Office improves its smarts in 2016, with Cortana style help and research systems integrated with office. Each application ribbon has a text box that accepts a natural language statement of what you are trying to do and tries to help you achieve that intent. It sometimes its helpful, and expect the feature to improve over time. Similarly, you can use a new “Smart Lookup” feature to run a web search against a selected term in a document, like to using google or bing, but with better results as the search considers context with respect to the document content.
Updates to Excel include new charts, including a waterfall chart type. Charting is also made faster and more accessible with a new feature where Excel makes suggestions of the type of chart you need based on the type of data you select to throw at it. I’m not sure dumbing down like this is always helpful, but you can always reject a poor selection. With a similar approach and dangers, a new trend forecasting feature has excel extrapolating historical data and a likely range with customisable confidence intervals. This could save time for an expert who understands the nature of their data and the algorithm behind the extrapolation, but its another tool I see that will be abused by people not understanding the limitations of this type of extrapolation. Delegating your thinking to a machine is always a danger, so use with caution.
Finally, a fix for attachments in Outlook 2016
Outlook has a new way to attach documents to an email. Documents stored on OneDrive that would normally be attached and sent with an email are instead attached as a link in the email giving access to the recipient to view and download, or edit.
For those of us who manage mail servers and have clients asking why they can’t send some 50MB file by email to the guy sitting the next desk over, it’s a great feature, encouraging users to look at productive ways to communicate and collaborate and reducing the mess large attachments can make to our exchange servers and backups!!.
Other changes to outlook include smarts to automatically organise your email with a new folder called Clutter (am not a fan), and a new groups feature to organise teams for collaboration.
And a new app build around Machine Intelligence – Sway
A new app called Sway has been available for a while, and is part of the Office 2016 app line-up. It is something a bit different, intended to help you build and present a story, but unlike PowerPoint, it helps you construct the presentation by starting with a topic and adding content from various online sources.
This is the first Office component with core functions dependent on machine learning algorithms, and as such an app that may be mainly a toy for now as the technology develops, but has the potential to become something quite impressive and spin off features and ideas to other parts of office, or seed ideas for new applications.
It is still Office, and that’s just fine
At its core, office does what it has always done. There is no single app, or even group of apps that can touch it for general business productivity tasks. The collaboration tools, machine smarts, and growing ecosystem, of related apps maintain Office as an essential tool for creators.
Subscription now the best model
When subscriptions to Office were first released by Microsoft, in almost all cases we suggested people stay clear. They offered very poor value. Microsoft took on board that feedback (and a lack of subscription sales!) and fixed what we hated about the subscription offers with Office 365.
At this time, most people are better off with Office 365 over other ways to buy Office. If you own an older boxed version of Office and are considering an upgrade to 2016, I strongly suggest you review Office 365 offerings and compare to the boxed 2016 versions.
Home users take a look at Office 365 Home Premium with its license for 5 users and multiple installs of the entire office suite with extras such as unlimited OneDrive storage and free calls to phones. Comparable boxed 2016 products limit access to some office programs, and usually allow just a single install so you need one copy per machine. The traditional product does not include the extras or free upgrades.
For business clients, there are a range of Office 365 options, many of which you won’t see advertised on retail web sites (ask to talk to our BDMs for options). Many Office 365 for business plans include major cloud service extras such as Exchange for email, and SharePoint as well as more generous licensing terms.