This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
By Larry Magid
It doesn’t take four computers to write a newspaper column but, just to prove a point, that’s what I’m doing as I try out Microsoft Office 2013 — the next version of Microsoft’s popular and profitable Office suite.
I wrote part of this column in Word 2013 running on my old Windows 7 desktop PC and another section on my Lenovo laptop running a preview version of Windows 8. I wrote part on a Samsung tablet running Windows 8 and finished up on my Macintosh, running the current Mac version of Word. But I never used the storage drives on any of those devices to save the file because — by default — Office 2013 saves files on in the cloud, using Microsoft’s SkyDrive. I was able to switch between machines and pick up where I left off.
The process wasn’t flawless. The “out of box experience” in getting the tablet to work was a bit rough, and there were times when the files I was looking for didn’t immediately appear on SkyDrive. But this is pre-release software and Microsoft has several months of development ahead to get things working smoothly for paying customers.
Still, as someone who uses multiple devices — sometimes in different parts of the world — I found it appealing to be able to access the same document on different computers.
You don’t need the new version of Office on Windows 8 to share files among devices. Dropbox, Google Drive and SugarSync all let you do that, and so does the existing version of SkyDrive, which, like its competitors, works across various devices and supports virtually all software. But there is something nice about software that’s cloud-friendly from day one. Microsoft really has re-engineered its products to support the new paradigm of always-available computing.
It’s promoting Office as a “service” as well as a suite of apps for PCs, tablets and phones. Microsoft hasn’t announced a new version of Office for the Mac but, if history is any guide, it likely will. In the meantime, Mac users will be able to share files with the PC version and access SkyDrive from within existing Mac applications, as I did when writing this column.
Office files will also be accessible on Windows phones, but there is no word as to whether Microsoft will release an iPad or Android version of its new Office suite.
When I installed the preview version of Office 2013 on my desktop PC (anyone can try it out for free at Office.com/preview), the first thing I noticed is that it didn’t break any of the customization features I had painstakingly programmed into my older version of Microsoft Word. Word and Excel support macros that enable you to combine sequences of commands into a single keystroke or mouse click as well as the ability to customize the keyboard and menus. To my delight, all the changes I had made to the previous version remained intact. I was also pleased to see that Microsoft didn’t write over Office 2010. The old version is still there if you need it. And the changes to the interface were subtle enough that I didn’t have to consult the help system to get my work done.
I was disappointed, however, that Microsoft hasn’t — yet, at least — fulfilled its promise to automatically carry over customizations to other devices. At the news conference, Microsoft Vice President Kirk Koenigsbauer said that all machines running office would access the same settings as all other machines as long as you were logged into your Windows Live account. That didn’t happen for me but they may have this working right by the time the product ships.
I found using Office on the borrowed Samsung tablet pretty much the same as using it on a desktop PC, as long as I used the Bluetooth keyboard that came with the device. It took awhile to get used to the idea of touching the screen to access menu items, but if I had plugged in a USB or Bluetooth mouse or trackpad, the experience would be been similar to using a laptop. Typing on the screen worked OK, but when it comes to creating documents, I prefer a keyboard.
I remain skeptical about how many existing Microsoft’s customers will be impressed enough with Office and/or Windows 8 to buy new machines or upgrade existing ones with the new software. Adding cloud storage is an inevitable next step and adding a touch interface is a nice touch, but when it comes to Office applications, the software is more like an appliance than a must-have new gadget.
There are some great new refrigerators on the market but as long as mine keep my food cold, I won’t bother to upgrade. The same can be said for productivity apps like Word and Excel. Even hot new versions could get a cold reception from budget conscious and change wary customers who are happy with what they already have.