Get ready for the new Microsoft Office. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant has started its technical preview of the new version, which is code-named Office 15, and speculation is starting to build.
The technical preview offers the software to a select group of customers, under non-disclosure agreements. On its official Office blog, PJ Hough, corporate vice president for Office program development, posted Monday about the technical preview, calling it the "most ambitious undertaking yet for the Office Division."
Tile or Not?
He said the new update will include revisions to Office-related cloud services, servers, mobile and PC clients, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Project, and Visio. A public beta test release is expected this summer.
While Microsoft isn't ready to release details about the changes, speculation is rampant on the Web.
A key question is the degree to which the new Office will be designed for the new tile-based, touch-oriented Metro style of Windows 8, or whether it will be primarily targeted for use in Windows 8's more traditional desktop mode.
At the moment, indications are that most apps in the Office suite will not be extensively rebuilt as a touch-based app, and will primarily use traditional Windows interaction, although there likely will be some visual simplification.
Even on ARM-based Windows 8 tablets, a key target platform for the Metro style, Office apps are expected to run in a traditional desktop mode. Various online reports indicate that a more complete overhaul of Office, which would have to be fully redesigned to take advantage of the Metro style, would require more development time than Microsoft is prepared to spend on the next release.
Tile vs. Desktop Mode
Some observers are expressing relief that Office will not be completely redesigned for Metro, because using productivity apps via an interface that is designed for tablets is, at best, an approach that needs to be thoroughly tested in the lab and field -- preferably on other software tools first, before it is tried on such essential productivity apps as Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
One key interaction issue, as Steve Kaneko, Office design director, has indicated to news media, is that the large tile- and touch-based Metro style is not necessarily the best interface for dealing with applications that require navigating and generating a large amount of information, such as many of Office's component applications.
This tension between a tile-based interface that could be appropriate for tablets, and a productivity-focused interface for what are fundamentally desktop productivity apps, is a recurring concern about the coming Windows 8. Microsoft's resolution for this issue is not yet clear.
If the limited adaptation of Office to the Windows 8 Metro style is accurate, it is counter to hints that CEO Steve Ballmer began dropping last fall. At the time, he told news media and analysts that "you ought to expect that we are rethinking and working hard on what it would mean to do Office Metro style."
While some Office apps, such as Word and Excel, may not be fully redesigned for the Metro style, other Office apps, such as OneNote and Lync, which involve less complex interaction, are expected to be more Metro-friendly.