Microsoft quietly reveals Office 2016 – but will it be enough to make us care?

Office has always been one of Microsoft’s most-loved products, and its new version is the tech giant’s attempt to woo us back

In a relatively quiet move last week, without the fanfare and glitz of the Apple launch the week before, tech’s grand old man Microsoft rolled out the product that could be its salvation: Microsoft Office 2016.

The deluge of new features seems like Microsoft is spewing out every update it should have had in the last three years into this one package: Skype-integrated documents, cloud-based apps that update in real time, Android and iOS compatibility, an artificially intelligent help tool and (finally) a collaboration button.

Microsoft Office 2016Microsoft Office 2016  Photo: Microsoft

The message from the company, under its new chief executive Satya Nadella, is loud and clear: Microsoft doesn’t just want to be software that you buy; it wants to become embedded in the way you work, a lot like how your iPhone has become a way of life. But while Office has languished, almost unchanged, for decades, the way we work has altered beyond recognition.

For years, when Office reigned king, workplace collaboration meant creating a file, emailing it to someone who tracks changes, and then sends it back. After a few back-and-forths, you end up with numerous copies of the same file, or worse, different versions without knowing which is most current.

But Office isn’t enough anymore – we have embraced productivity on-the-fly. We can collaboratively edit documents and spreadsheets in the cloud, access these files while we’re travelling, working out or shopping, and ask to be notified by a buzz when any real-time changes occur. In this nimble world of Google Docs, Slack, Evernote and Box, the old Office is like an ageing celebrity – vaguely comforting, but increasingly irrelevant.

So can Office 2016 win us back before it’s too late?

Kirk Koenigsbauer of Microsoft at the Apple launch event in San Francisco, September 2015Kirk Koenigsbauer of Microsoft at the Apple launch event  Photo: EPA

Microsoft’s big advantage is sheer numbers. Today, 1 in 7 people on the planet (1.2 billion in total) use Office. As reported by Wired, there have been more than 150 million downloads of Office on iPhones, iPads and Android tablets in the first three months of 2015. The number of consumer subscriptions on Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based subscription service, grew 22 percent in the same period, from 12.4 million to 15.2 million subscribers.

If Microsoft was able to grow a service that remained static for at least three years, despite newer, cleverer upstarts, it’s clearly got something that people already like. All it needs to do is keep up with the pace of change.

During Nadella’s short tenure as leader, his strategy has been to woo back users with a simple proposition: a return to Microsoft staples, but upgraded for a “mobile-first, cloud-first” age. In other words, the same products, but easier to access and share.

In July, the firm began to make this strategy clear. It sold off peripheral services like the failing digital advertising business, which was bought by Aol, and its mapping engine, acquired by taxi service Uber. It also focused its effort on the launch of Windows 10 – a smooth and well-received new operating system that links Microsoft’s PC, tablet, mobile and gaming platforms together.

Both moves were clear evidence of the company’s decision to re-emphasize its core products.

For the reinvention of the much-loved Office 2016, Microsoft has decided to stick with the familiar. It looks and functions a lot like what you’re used to: no new navigation interfaces or funny menus. The biggest changes are under the hood – the package has been redesigned to be collaborative and cross-platform.

In practice, that means the new Office is available not just on Windows 10 but nearly all devices. It’s compatible with iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets. The Mac versions of Office apps are fully native. And if you subscribe to Office 365, you get a fully updated version of the apps wherever you are.

The clearest indication of its commitment to cross-platform was at Apple’s iPad Pro launch event on September 9. Microsoft’s Kirk Koenigsbauer, Vice President of Office came on stage to demonstrate how his team is using their rival’s new Pencil as a productivity tool. This open channel is also a hallmark of Nadella’s leadership style: he’s brokered new partnerships with former rivals, resulting in unlikely, but productive collaborations like the recent Office and iPad Pro example.

And it’s not just Apple users that Microsoft is trying to target – it’s also aiming at Google. Office 2016 now works online, with real-time collaboration for the first time. This is something that Google has been doing for years with Google Docs and Drive, but Microsoft has brought a new tool to the party: Skype. Google’s equivalent, Hangouts, doesn’t reach as many people, and now that Microsoft have built Skype right into Office 2016, it makes it easy for people to hash out the details of a document, or the data in a spreadsheet over video.

With the rise of the work-from-home culture and frequent business travel, this is likely to be a popular option for teams spread out across the world.

To encourage collaboration, the new Word allows you to share documents and watch people type changes in real time – this is a great way for an editor to work on a piece with a writer, for instance, rather than working in siloes. It also allows you access to the version history, allowing you to see who changed what and saves all versions in the cloud, so you don’t lose your draft in case of a crash like the old days.

Office 2016 represents Microsoft’s efforts to invest in the future of productivity – and so far it seems to have ticked all the boxes.

But the pace of change in the digital world isn’t once every three years – it’s continuous. Apparently, Microsoft intends to stay in the race: senior Microsoft engineers have said Office updates won’t be a rare occurrence anymore, but rolled out on a regular, monthly basis.

And if Nadella sticks with his agile mentality, Office 2016 could actually be the one that makes us fall back in love with Microsoft.

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