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

on July 18, 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.