As Microsoft works on the next release of Windows, it has been remarkably forthcoming about its details. The Building Windows 8 blog has not only laid out the changes in the new version, but the thinking behind them.
But Microsoft has said almost nothing about the new version of Office it is developing in parallel with Windows 8. It has distributed an early version to a select group of testers, but wrapped it in a non-disclosure agreement. We’re not likely to get the full details on Office 15 (a development name unlikely to be used for marketing) until a public beta is released this summer.
The new Office is a big deal, perhaps the most important release in the suite’s history because Microsoft has to pull off a number of difficult and contradictory things. On one level Office and its associated back-end components such as Exchange and SharePoint are both mainstays of enterprise technology and by far the most important source of Microsoft profits. The last thing enterprise customers want to see is a drastic change in Office.
At the same time, Microsoft must deal with a revolution in user devices. Conventional PCs are giving way to tablets and, to some extent, smartphones. Even in the enterprise, where desktops and laptops will continue to rule for a long time, mobile executives and field workers are depending more and more on tablets and phones.
Office as it exists today is a catastrophe on any sort of touchscreen device, let alone one with a 10″ or smaller display. Starting with Office 2007, Microsoft began replacing Office applications’ traditional cascading menus with a “ribbon” of choices. For a traditional mouse-driven user interface, this is probably an improvement, but it’s no help for touch.
The little icons on the ribbon (above) are too small to hit reliably with a finger, and most of them open a window or drop-down with additional icons or menu choices. In addition to the difficulty of navigating this clutter by touch, the ribbon occupies an amount of real estate that is intolerable on a tablet, let alone a handset. And Office as it exists today is way, way too big for the limited storage capacity of tablets.
Still, the richness of functionality that all those icons represent is the essence of Office. It’s true that many consumers never use 90% of the functions, but in a business setting, complex options such as edit tracking, table of contents creation, and mail merge are often regarded as essential. It’s not at all apparent how this sort of rich application can exist in a simplified, touch-optimized user interface like Metro, which will be the default paradigm for Windows 8.
It seems likely that Microsoft will end up with two versions of Office, a classic UI for traditional PCs and a stripped down and simplified Metro UI for tablets. How seamlessly can these two versions co-exist? Will the simplified version be able to display complex content correctly (this has historically been a problem with all programs that purported to offer limited editing of Office files)? How do you even begin to make Excel useful on a tablet? Can Microsoft developers find a way to bring full offline functionality to Outlook without downloading a multi-gigabyte database?
This is only the beginning of a very long list of questions about how this new two-headed Office should work. And it doesn’t even touch on the question of how much Office functionality will be available in the version that is to run on tablets powered by ARM rather than Intel processors. (Intel users will, in theory, have the option of running older, classic versions of Office. ARM users will not.)
Depending on how strictly testers adhere to their NDAs (and how serious Microsoft is about enforcing them) we may begin to get some answers soon. A version of Office that makes business users productive with their key applications could be a big competitive advantage for the forthcoming Windows tablets. But making this work will be one of the biggest challenges Microsoft has ever faced.