Microsoft Office 2013’s Biggest Risk Could be its Visual Design

Microsoft Office has been the staple of productivity for years, particularly for businesses. Therefore, whenever big changes happen to the product, it’s a big deal. Literally millions of IT departments and users shoulder the burden to learn every new version in hopes of squeaking out every ounce of corporate productivity. Microsoft’s latest version is in preview, out for testing millions of current and some potential users, too. There has been a lot written about the risks on potential pricing and its cloud-first method, but I believe the biggest risk is in its visual design, which looks more like a free Google product than a rich app buyers pay $399 for.

clip_image002Whether the industry accepts it or not, Apple is leading the latest design wave as measured by what looks premium. Physically, Apple design is all about minimalism with brushed aluminum, blacks, whites and sweeping angles with as few connectors and buttons as possible. The software design language is connected to the hardware language as that same brushed aluminum and minimalism is brought to OSX and apps like Mail and Calendar. Some apps take on a style of real world objects like Contacts, Notes, Pages, Find Friends, Newsstand and Photo Booth with elements of paper, leather, wood and even fabric. I cannot say I am a huge fan of the real-life designs, but it hasn’t stopped me or millions from buying Apple products. Microsoft’s Metro is distinctly different.

Metro design is a sharp departure from Windows 7 and also very different from Apple. Being different is a good thing as long as it attracts who you are targeting. Metro is direct touch, air gesture and speech control first, mouse and keyboard second. It focuses on the content by adding a ton of white space, 90 degree angles, and multiple, bright colors. There are no ties to real-life metaphors in color, shape, or texture. Like many, I like Metro for phones, tablets and even the XBOX. Now Office, in Office  2013 adopts the Metro design, a sharp departure from Office 2010. After using Office 2013 for a week, this is unfortunately where my Metro design admiration stops. The interesting part is that I thought it looked fine in screen shots, but as I used it on my 23” display for a week, it felt lifeless and drab. It was hard to even sit in front of and use for a few hours and I believe many other users will have this challenge as well.

I must point out that the industry has lived through many Office design changes, and there has always been a lot of uproar.  This is nothing new.  Remember when the ribbon first came out?  Many said that would be the thing that drove people to the alternatives which didn’t happen.  I think this case could very well be different as many alternatives exist, primarily Apple and Google and with such a drastic design departure, users will need to relearn or become comfortable with something new.  At no time has Apple’s and Google’s office tools been such a viable alternative.  I do not bring bias into this conversation as I have been a committed Office user since its existence.  In fact, I bend over backwards to use it in that I pay a monthly fee to Google just so I can sync my Google contacts and calendar to Outlook.  Based on the design changes and the alternatives, I am considering the switch and am looking at Apple and Google right now.  While mine and other’s purchase criteria incorporate more than just design, I think it is vital as it’s what you will be staring at eight hours a day.

The Google Apps for Business design language is more similar to Office 2013 than to Office 2010. It is minimal and very blocky with few shadows and lines.  In some ways, it’s more minimal than even Office 2013 that still sports the full ribbon.

Apple’s Mail and Calendar are more like Office 2013, with depth and shadows but with a very minimal ribbon or header and has seamless connections to Google Mail and Calendar without a monthly fee.


So what does this mean to the success of Office 2013?  I believe Microsoft’s risk in enterprise is primarily with Google Apps for Business, but until Google can develop more robust spreadsheet scripting, increase presentation design  sophistication, and implement a more robust offline capabilities, it won’t make too big a dent in white collar professionals.  Employees who just need mail and calendar, Google is a big risk.  At $499-349 retail price, why would IT even think of doing this? And look at the Google design…. looks so similar now with Office 2013.  For small businesses, I believe Apple is the big risk to Microsoft Office 2013.  Included with every Mac, a user gets a full-fledged and robust email and calendar program and can users buy decent spreadsheet, presentation and word processors for  $19.99 a piece.  add to that they’re already  synced with iCloud and have optimized apps for the iPhone and iPad. Like me, users with Apple can also eliminate the monthly fee I pay for the Google Connector for Outlook.

It is a good time for consumers and businesses as even more choices are available than ever.  Now that the design has changed so much, now is the time to explore your options.

Will Windows RT Include Outlook? Microsoft Won’t Say

Office 13 logo
Folks who plan to use Outlook on ARM-powered tablets, such as the Windows RT version of the Surface, may be in for a disappointment. The materials Microsoft released this week along with the Consumer Preview of Office 2013 were frustratingly vague about the RT version, saying only that Windows RT tablets would come bundled with a version of Office that included Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

In in response to a direct question on whether Outlook would be available for RT, a Microsoft spokesperson said “we are not sharing more specifics about ARM plans today.”

A lack of Outlook on RT tablets has important implications. Many enterprises rely heavily on Outlook, especially as the front end to Exchange mail and collaboration systems. and the lack of Outlook would eliminate a major competitive advantage for Windows tablets vs. the iPad and other tablets. Users would be stuck with the mail, contacts, and calendar programs built into, and the mail program, at least as it exists in the windows 8 Consumer Preview, is particularly weak. It’s Exchange support is limited and  it does not support standard internet mail (IMAP or POP3) accounts at all.

However, as I point out in a post earlier today, Outlook 2013 shares the space and resource hungry architecture of earlier versions and implementing it on an ARM device would be highly problematic. In particular, Outlook’s storage requirements will prove very troublesome on tablets where storage is limited to a few gigabytes.



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

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.


Very Quick Office Reaction: Getting the Cloud Wrong

Office 13 logoI’ve just spent about half an hour playing with the new Office 2013 preview, so obviously this is a very preliminary reaction. There will be a lot more to say in coming weeks and months. But I do think that in its understandable enthusiasm to bring Office applications to the cloud, Microsoft has made a fundamental mistake.

I very much like the idea of syncing copies of documents to the cloud. But I want first and foremost to retain a local copy, especially when working on a laptop rather than a tablet. Here’s how I do it now:  My Office apps are set to save files by default to the Documents folder  on both Windows and Mac. The Documents folders, along with its many subfolders, is set up to sync automatically with SugarSync and the non-tablet systems that I use regularly are set up for full two-way sync; when I upload a new or updated document from system A, that same document is silently, but quickly, downloaded to system B. This gives me up-to-date local and cloud copies. (You can do something similar with other sync services such as Dropbox, but I have been using SugarSync since it was in beta.)

The new Office apps save by default only to CloudDrive, meaning that no permanent local copy of the file is created (a temporary file is created to save any changes made while not connected to the network.) This makes sense on Windows tablets, though not as much sense as it does on a iPad, which lacks a real user-accessible file system. It makes no sense whatever on a laptop. You can easily override the default setting to store files locally, but then you have to manually create a cloud copy. Based on lots of experience, for reasons of both security and availability, I want that local copy.

What a really want from CloudDrive integration is something that works like SugarSync and automatically saves locally and syncs to the cloud. In fact, it could usefully go a step further and check before opening a local copy to see if there is a newer version on CloudDrive and give you the choice of which one you wanted to edit. This wouldn’t be hard to implement and would provide a much better experience.