Microsoft reveals 'magical' new Office 2013

Microsoft's latest version of Office pushes customers toward using cloud-based services that makes the suite of applications available on any device -- PC, tablet or phone -- and has a user interface tuned to work with the touch-centric Windows 8 operating system.

The combination of the new Office with Windows 8 and Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage make an environment that is more productive than the traditional Office, says Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "Together I think they're quite magical," he says.

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The company made the announcement during a press conference today in San Francisco but didn't say when the new Office and its related services will be available. Pricing details will be revealed this fall, the company says.

Ballmer refers to the updated Office suite in combination with cloud subscription services through Office 365 as "the new Office," but the software itself is Office 2013.

Details about the new Office help bring together in a more cohesive way new and updated products that Microsoft has announced recently -- the latest operating system, Windows 8, the cloud service SkyDrive, and the new PC/tablets called Surface.

The company's vision is that consumers will buy a Windows 8 device such as Surface and subscribe for an Office service that provides cloud access to the applications, automatic upgrades, extra cloud storage and Skype minutes for calling regular phones from Office apps. The service accommodates multiple users and devices within a family, for example.

The Surface devices can operate with a full keyboard and mouse or act as tablets controlled via touchscreen, so they can readily handle applications in whatever mode best suits the user.

Work done in Office is by default saved to the cloud. Users can access it via SkyDrive from any device and it will be formatted appropriately to fit the devices' screens.

The service has features to improve productivity such as bookmarking where in Office applications a user last worked and providing a button to jump directly to that spot.

Much of the announcement focused on consumer use of Office, but Microsoft announced two new versions of cloud-based Office 365 services for businesses.

Office 365 ProPlus is for enterprises and includes cloud-based management of the application suite and unspecified advanced capabilities. Office 365 Small Business Premium includes business-grade email, shared calendars and high-def Web conferencing and is aimed at smaller businesses.

Demonstrations at the press conference included use of an 80-inch touchscreen to conduct an HD videoconference. The screen was made by Perceptive Pixel, a company Microsoft announced it would buy last week.

The company envisions use of 80-inch touch displays as a means of conferencing that draws in HD video of participants and blends it with documents, slides and whiteboards on which members can draw with styluses.

In developing Office 2013, Microsoft spent a lot of time getting the applications to interoperate with each other to enhance collaboration. So during a demonstration today, Microsoft showed OneNote interoperating with a Lync conference by automatically creating a notebook for the meeting where participants could find the agenda, the list of who attended, a log of what they did and what resources such as PowerPoint presentations and Word documents they viewed.

The announcement answered a nagging question about upcoming product releases. Ballmer says that the office applications that come standard with the Windows 8 devices based on ARM processors known as Windows RT will be fully featured Office apps with nothing left out. "That wasn't the junior version," he says about the Windows RT demonstration at the press conference. Windows RT includes Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint.

While Microsoft is encouraging customers to buy Office via its cloud service, the software will also be available to install on individual devices without cloud add-ons.

The applications in the suite that are available for customer preview consist of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote and Outlook and also blend in Skype to include presence and quick connections via voice or video to parties with the peer-to-peer communications application on their devices.

Microsoft seems to have spent a lot of time on making it simpler to embed multimedia in the applications. They support Web searches for pictures and videos and embedding them by clicking (or tapping with touchscreen) to set them within Word documents, for instance.

A new reading mode in Word enables tapping the video and having it play over the Word document. Viewers can return to the text document by tapping off the video. 

Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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