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By | Tim Anderson 22nd September 2015 10:14

Microsoft Office 2016 for Windows: The spirit of Clippy lives on

New look, new features, same old issues, but quietly impressive nonetheless

First Look Microsoft has released Office 2016 for Windows, over two and half years after the launch of Office 2013 in January of that year.

The Office team has been busy in the intervening period – and not just with Office 2016. March 2014 saw the release of Office for iPad, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote in touch-optimised versions, which pack a lot of features behind a simplified user interface.

This was followed by versions for iPhone, Android tablets and phones, and Office mobile apps for Windows 10, all of which have similar features and, we are told, are built from the same code base.

Office also has a cloud component, via integration with Office 365, Microsoft’s hosted email and productivity suite. The core cloud product is SharePoint Online, for document storage and collaboration, which includes Office Web Apps for creating and editing documents in the browser.

This is supplemented by other applications, including Office Sway for online presentations, and Office Delve, which performs contextual search across SharePoint Online informed by what the company calls the Office Graph – data derived from your contacts and usage of Office 365.

Delve has mobile apps for iOS and Android, but Windows users miss out.

There are also versions of Outlook, Microsoft’s email and calendaring application, for iOS and Android, as well as Windows and Mac. The mobile versions of Outlook are based on Microsoft’s December 2014 acquisition of Accompli – they handle not only Office 365 and Exchange email, but also Google Mail, iCloud, Yahoo and any IMAP server.

Microsoft’s Office strategy seems to be about supporting Office 365 and maintaining its position as the dominant format for business documents by supporting all the most popular platforms, rather than focusing on the Windows product suite.

This strategy, along with the fact that the core products are more than mature – Excel for Windows goes back to 1987, Word to 1989 – may be the reason why Office 2016 is not replete with new features.

The core of these applications seems little changed in this release, and there is nothing in Word that will change the mind of Charlie Stross, who a couple of years back wrote that “Word was in fact broken by design, from the outset – and it only got worse from there.”

For years, Word experts have recommended against using the Master Document feature for long documents, because they corrupt, and this release is unlikely to be different. Outlook’s user interface remains convoluted for advanced tasks, such as opening another user’s mailbox. This option is buried in File > Account Settings > Select account > Change > More Settings > Advanced tab. Phew.

Will Microsoft ever fix such issues? Dream on.

What is new, then? When Office 2013 was released, Microsoft applied a touch of Metro design, visible in all CAPS menus and a washed-out appearance that was in line with content-first principles, though this made little sense in the context of editing tools.

Office 2016 restores upper and lower case menus and adds a new “colourful” theme as the default – an improvement, in my view. There is also a Dark theme, which Microsoft says is aimed at people with visual impairments.

The next thing you will notice is a lightbulb in the ribbon menu in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, captioned “Tell me what you want to do”. The idea is that rather than hunting through the ribbon, you type something here: “Spell check” in Word, for example. The action you want should then appear in a list, and when you select it, it is performed.

Office 2016 Tell Me found the right place to show a second time zone

Office 2016 "Tell Me" found the right place to show a second time zone

“Tell Me” is the latest effort to make Office easier to use. Some will remember Clippy and “it looks like you’re writing a letter” in Office 97. Unlike Clippy, “Tell Me” does not get in the way, but functions as a kind of search-driven user interface. It responds to the Alt-Q keyboard shortcut and works well if you would rather not pick up the mouse, or are not sure where to find a command.

In Outlook, I typed “Show another time zone”, and Tell Me successfully found Calendar Options. In Excel I typed “Find the average” but this seemed to stump Tell Me, which offered AutoSum, though there is a Help option that did open a relevant topic.

Real-time co-authoring

Another new feature is real-time co-authoring in Word, PowerPoint and OneNote (although not Excel). Collaboration in Office is not new: Office 2010 introduced real-time co-authoring based on SharePoint 2010, and this is also possible with the in-browser Office Web Apps. Office 2016 has a new implementation which allows real-time collaboration on documents saved to Office 365 or OneDrive.

This time, edits appear as they are made, rather than when each user saves. I tried this successfully with Word using consumer OneDrive, and was able to see my collaborator’s edits appearing as they were made, though it was somewhat laggy over the internet. Office 2016 or Office Web Apps is required at both ends.

A user interface change in Outlook encourages users to share document links instead of attaching them to emails. Links are now the default if you click Attach File, if the document is saved to OneDrive or Office 365. The dialog also automatically shows a list of recently used documents, which is a neat touch.

Attaching a cloud file results in "anyone can edit" links by default

Attaching a cloud file results in "anyone can edit" links by default

Changing defaults is a powerful technique for changing behaviour, but although having a single shared document is a more advanced way to work, there is also potential for confusion, particularly as Outlook 2016 appears to attach links with edit permissions by default.

Once attached, you can change the permissions or choose Attach as Copy. There is sleight of hand here: “attaching” a file is not the same as sending a link, and users who do want to attach files may find the new defaults obstructive. Users will need to understand the implications, for example that “attached files” in old emails may no longer exist, or may have different content.

Another Outlook collaboration feature is Groups, based on Office 365 groups. Office 365 subscribers can create groups from within Outlook, providing a shared calendar and document store as well as a simple mailing list.

An Office 365 group is now visible in Outlook

An Office 365 group is now visible in Outlook

A small change in Outlook, aimed at devices with small amounts of storage, lets you limit the length of time emails are stored offline to as little as 3 days.

The Office 365 Clutter feature, which automatically sorts low-priority email into a separate folder, is now manageable from Outlook as well as online.

Excel 2016 has new chart types, including Waterfall, Box and Whisker, Treemap and Sunburst. There are also new forecasting functions and a forecast sheet wizard. Power Query, formerly a downloadable add-on, has been integrated into the main release and lets you analyse data from multiple sources, including SQL databases and Hadoop files. Business intelligence features have been enhanced, with automatic time grouping in pivot tables and the ability to drill into data direct from pivot chart visualisations.

Creating a Forecast sheet in Excel 2016

Creating a Forecast sheet in Excel 2016

Striving to Excel

Considering the size of the Office suite, the list of significant new features is relatively short, and shorter still if you use Office without Office 365 or OneDrive. That said, the refreshed look is welcome and as a keyboard addict, I found myself liking the Tell Me feature despite its limited intelligence.

Excel is the highlight of the suite: the new chart types and forecasting features look handy, and users will like the data analysis improvements. Real-time co-authoring is an impressive feat of engineering, despite some lag, though it is not as smooth as doing this in the browser, whether with Office 365 web apps or Google Docs.

However, the bigger picture is that over the last couple of years, Microsoft has made enormous progress in making Office work decently across a broad range of devices. In July it put out a Mac version which was a great improvement over the poor Office 2011. In addition, the company is pushing customers towards Office 365 and subscription licensing, and while this will not suit everyone, there are benefits both in collaboration and ease of installation.

Some issues remain. Microsoft Office is wedded to its file formats, which causes problems for organisations standardising on OpenDocument Format (ODF). There is limited support for ODF here, but it is sub-optimal.

Another longstanding problem is the buggy OneDrive for Business client for synchronising Office 365 documents with a PC. Microsoft says in its press release that "a new sync client for Windows and Mac will deliver enchanced sync reliability", and this is promised later this month.

Taken on its own, Office 2016 is a solid, though unspectacular update, but the way the broader Office and Office 365 platform is coming together is more impressive. ®

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