Office 2013: Can Complexity and Touch Get Along? [UPDATED]

by Steve Wildstrom   |   July 18th, 2012

The new versionOffice 13 logo of Microsoft Office, unveiled this week in a consumer preview, has an awful lot riding on it. The strongest claim Microsoft can make for Windows 8 tablets, including the Microsoft-branded Surface, is that they will deliver the full Office experience. This probably won’t mean much to consumers, most of whom can do perfectly well with with the Office alternatives available today for the iPad. But it is a very big deal in the enterprise, where Office still rules and advanced features are routinely used.

To an extent that technology writers on the web often ignore, enterprises live and die in Office and its back office companions, especially Exchange and SharePoint. Support for these technologies in both iOS and Android is limited by the lack of support for full-featured Office applications. Windows 8 delivers that, at least in part, but there are major questions about the usability of the apps without a keyboard and mouse. Based on preliminary experience with the new Office, it looks like the software could give Microsoft a competitive edge, but it is very far from being decisive.

Outlook on RT? There’s a lot we still don’t know about Office, especially the version that will run on Windows RT (ARM-based) systems. For example, we do not know for certain whether Outlook, a critical enterprise application, will exist for Windows RT. The version of Office that will be bundled on Surface and other Windows RT tablets will not include Outlook. If Outlook is not available separately–and Microsoft has not yet responded to inquiries on this point–enterprise users with Exchange accounts would have to make do with the much more limited Windows 8 mail, calendar, and contact programs. UPDATE: A Microsoft spokesperson says the company has no further information on its Office for Windows RT plans at this time.

Microsoft developers faced an impossible task with Office 2013. The essence of Office is the richness of its applications. But feature-rich applications require complicated interfaces, and complicated interfaces are very difficult to implement for a touch-only tablet environment. Consider the iPhoto application for the iPad. It’s a very rich app by iPad standards, though it contains only a small fraction of the features of Photoshop. Yet it has a user interface that, again by iPad standards, is unusually complex and fussy.

Microsoft decided to make only evolutionary changes to the Office UI. A lot of touch features have been added, especially gestural controls, but access the the myriad features still requires negotiating Office’s maze of ribbons and menus. Unless you have Steve Jobs’s famous sandpapered fingers, you’re going to need a stylus or some other sort of pointing device to do that with any efficiency. Ars Technica summed it up well in a downbeat analysis of touch features in Office with the subhead: “Office 2013 makes concessions to tablet users, but they’re far too few.”

How big a problem this is depends on how an individual wants to use Office on a tablet. Having the full apps lets you view files, make minor changes, and save or send them without the fear you may have that a third-party tablet app would make a mess of complex formatting. But any attempt to do serious work on complex documents will prove extremely frustrating without a keyboard and a pointing device. You have all the features, but they are just not highly usable in touch mode. (I found that highly formatted documents did not do at all well in Word’s new Reading view. Pages with multiple elements broke up in ways that made it difficult to understand the relationship between them.)

The mail challenge. Outlook is a special case. Outlook 15 does not appear to have tamed the application’s hunger for resources, both CPU cycles and storage. This will be problematic on tablets, with their very limited storage. I installed the new Outlook on a laptop running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and set up two mail accounts: The IMAP service I use as my primary mail account and a lightly used corporate Exchange account. The local database (OST file) for the Exchange account, which was limited to the last six months of messages, weighed in at 211 MB. The file for the much more active IMAP account took up 1.9 GB (the option to time-limit the messages stored locally is available only for Exchange accounts.) Unlike the mail programs designed for tablets, Outlook clearly does not have the economical use of local storage as a priority–and this is why I think it may not be an option on Windows RT devices, which are likely to have more modest specs than their Intel-based brethren.

Microsoft made a decision to deliver the full Windows experience on tablets. The difficulty is that it isn’t a very good tablet experience for the same reasons that Windows 7 was not a satisfactory touch experience. The richness and complexity of Office may appeal to IT departments looking to support uniform software across different types of devices, but I think users will be frustrated.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • http://www.BarnesFamily.com/ davebarnes

    Who cares?
    No Office 2013 on Mac OS.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don;t know why anyone expected there would be a Mac version of Office 2013. The Mac and Windows versions of Office have always been on different release schedules and the current mac version, Office 2011, is still quite new. Furthermore, there’s no point to the touch enhancements of Office on the Mac since Apple has no intention of doing a touch version of Macs or OS X. Instead, Microsoft will update Office 2011 to add SkyDrive support.

      What would be very nice is an iOS version of Office, but for the moment at least, that does not appear to be in the cards.

  • FalKirk

    Good article, Steve. Here are some salient points made by the Ars Technical Review that you cited in your article:

    “These are not touch applications, and you will not want to use them on touch systems. They’re designed for mice and they’re designed for keyboards, and making the buttons on the ribbon larger does nothing to change that fundamental fact.”

    So much for Microsoft Office being the Windows RT “Killer App”.

    “Clearly, this is not exposing the full power and complexity of Office 2013 to finger users; too much is still designed around pixel-perfect pointing devices. The Office team appears to be positioning touch support more as a way of enabling simple edits to be made as a kind of fall-back—a stopgap solution for those times when the mouse and keyboard aren’t available”

    This was inevitable. The pixel input and the touch input are inherently incompatible. You can’t design an operating system – or an Office Suite – that does both well. Microsoft refuses to acknowledge this fact but failing to acknowledge a fact does not abrogate it’s existence. And the incompatibility of touch and pixel user inputs may well come to haunt Microsoft this Fall when they pretend that reality doesn’t exist and that PC+ can simultaneously deliver both pixel and finger inputs on the same OS and on the same suite of software applications.

    • Rich

      It sounds like Microsoft is in the position of a person who is standing with one foot on a dock and the other foot on a boat which is leaving the dock.

  • http://twitter.com/kbconsulting Ken Berger

    It would seem from the early reviews this is more a that office 15 is more gesture based than touch based (similar to the track pad gesture enabled mac versions) based on reviews I have seen. Your comparison of iPhoto is good but it would be better to compare it to the OSX version where the time spent making a true touch application results in a more useable product.

    • steve_wildstrom

      You analysis is correct, but the key is that OS X is based on gestures, not touch. This is the inevitable result of Microsoft trying to have it both ways.

      I cited iOS iPhoto only as an example of how rich functionality leads to a complex user interface.

  • unhinged

    While it may not please all Outlook users, I have found that the rich HTML client for Outlook does a very impressive job. For me, it is good enough to act as my main work email app. The only time I fire up Outlook (in WIndows on a VM) is when I need to delete several hundred automated messages that have been filtered to my trash – and I’m sure if I could be bothered I could create a rule to handle that for me.

    • steve_wildstrom

      For it to work really well, the back end has to be Exchange 2010, especially if you want to use a browser other than IE, and there are a lot of folks still using earlier versions. Also, you need connectivity. Still, Office Web Access, to give it its proper name, could be the answer for tablets since you don’t need to store the OST file locally. But using it on a tablet will require a version redesigned for touch.