Last week, Microsoft announced the availability of free MS Office 2013 Consumer Preview download (32-bit and 64-bit editions). The software will be able to run on Windows 7 or 8, and the offer lasts till June 2013. The most remarkable feature of the new Office suite is that it comes with cloud-support features, accessible via Microsoft SkyDrive, which enable document-sharing across devices. Announcing the Office, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer emphasised, "We are taking bold steps at Microsoft...The new, modern Office is a cloud service, and will fully light up when paired with Windows 8." He wasn't joking.
We tested the preview version of it on Windows 8; and the experience told us in no unclear terms that the company has upped the ante on the software front.
What's new and noticeable?
Microsoft has made some visible changes to its popular programmes, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. While the user interface of Word 2013 looks neat and minimalist, what catches attention is the responsiveness of the cursor that flits instantaneously between characters while typing.
If you have still not warmed up to the Ribbon feature (the overhead menu), this edition of Office offers many customisations. A simple tap brings Ribbon into view; another in the document area and the menu slides away. Users can now open, edit and create PDF documents in Word. Also, manipulating images and videos on the text document has been made easier and better. Users can embed online video codes into documents and play them on apps.
Office can save documents to cloud via SkyDrive (just as Google saves via Google Docs), and synchronise files, application settings and preferences across devices. The synchronisation service is available up to 7 GB (a generous amount) for free.
Excel comes with a useful tool, Flash Fill, that reformats data automatically, based on usage patterns. Another feature, Quick Analysis, can suggest (almost accurately) the best chart to use, as well as create pivot tables, to help analyse data.
The new PowerPoint can create slides in a 16:9 aspect ratio by default, making the view more pleasant on widescreens. It comes with new shape and alignment tools, as also an enhanced Presenter view that allows zooming in and out to highlight key points.
Outlook does not come with too many changes to its interface, but is more social and connects to Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft's own Hotmail, without needing to install an add-on. Users can 'peek' at contacts and calendar appointments from the main Outlook screen, just like on Windows phone.
Users will eventually interact with Office 2013 using a stylus, keyboard, mouse and a touchscreen (depending on the device from which they are accessing). Although most of the tweaks to Office 2013 (Metro-styled apps, cloud storage, etc.) have been made keeping the young in mind, yet combining touch controls with keyboard and mouse clicks may generate confusion.
The company refuses to confirm any plan of making the applications compliant with other platforms, such as Apple's iPad. If they do make these usable on others, Microsoft could give Google Apps and its ilk a run for their money.
Following Microsoft's acquisition of Skype, VOIP capability has been integrated into Office. This means users (businesses and individual customers) can now launch a Skype call, or conduct an instant-message session, directly from the Office app. This should come as a welcome integration for many.
So, is there enough lure in Office 2013 to compel someone using Office 2010, or an even older version, to ditch it? Probably not, especially for the average user, who needs basic Word, Excel and PowerPoint tools.
But those who have invested, or are looking forward to invest, in a Windows tablet or a phone, the fresh set of social tools, visual improvements, and integrated touch controls come as a great upgrade.
To get started, visit Microsoft's website www.microsoft.com/office/preview, sign up and download; you can install up to five copies from a single sign-in.