Hands on: Office 2016 preview focuses on data-gathering and collaboration in the cloud

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Credit: Rob Schultz

Microsoft isn’t building Office 2016 for you. It’s building Office for y’all

“We are moving from Office for us, to Office with others,” Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella declared during Microsoft’s Build keynote last week.

Microsoft released the consumer preview of Office 2016 on Monday. You won’t find dramatic redesigns of its user interface—those are reserved for the universal Office apps that Microsoft has built or is building for its mobile platforms.

Intelligence knits the Office 2016 apps together, as does a palpable sense of collaboration. If you download and test the new suite, you’d be well-served testing it with a friend or a group of colleagues. Many of the new features encourage you to weave data together from diverse sources in the hopes that it will reveal insight.

Office 2016 also shifts how we interact with data in one important way: It actively encourages you to share data via the cloud, rather than files that you download and append to documents. The “death of downloading” hasn’t happened yet, but it seems nigh.

office 2016 chacos

You’ll need a Microsoft account to take full advantage of what Office 2016 offers.

Microsoft released the preview on Monday. I downloaded a 32-bit version of the Office preview using the Office 2016 preview download methods my colleague Brad Chacos described, replacing the version of Office 2013 installed on my test machine. You can also install it through an Office 365 subscription if you have one. 

Microsoft used its click-to-run technology to stream and install Office in the background, downloading preview copies of Access 2016, Excel 2016, OneNote 2016, Outlook 2016, PowerPoint 2016, Publisher 2016, and Word 2016 to my machine. The preview expires in 180 days, the software says. The installation was simple and painless, unlike the earlier Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview.

Remember, this is a preview. After this story was written, the Surface 3, my test machine, crashed. When it rebooted and updated, Outlook and other Office apps wouldn’t launch. An error message said the operation failed due to an installation problem, and I’d be forced to reinstall.

No Google-like collaboration, yet

Like many writers, my go-to Office application is Microsoft Word. Given Microsoft’s goal of making Google Apps-like real-time collaboration one of the selling points of Office 2016, I eagerly loaded Word to test it out. 

office 2016 outlook 2016 crop Mark Hachman

Outlook 2016 on the Microsoft Surface 3.

The way Google Apps permits multiple authors to collaborate is the way I expect collaboration to work: multiple authors making real-time changes to a document, with appropriately colored cursors identifying who is making each change. Microsoft provides that experience within Office Online, but not within the Office desktop apps—yet. 

Since the Office 2016 preview is literally a work in progress, real-time co-authoring will eventually be added before the software is released as a final product. It's not there now. Currently, the co-authoring experience is much more like Office 2013 than anything else.

I quickly hacked together a test document in Word 2016 and sent it off to Brad Chacos via Outlook 2016. As Microsoft executives noted Tuesday morning, Word automatically tries to save into OneDrive by default—specifically OneDrive for Business. Then, when you send a file via Outlook, the file isn’t actually sent—just a link is, and the user is invited to co-edit the document with the appropriate permissions. (You can also share files directly from Office applications in both Office 2013 and Office 2016.) Office 2016 also defaults to a list of recently used files when you attach a document, generally listing the latest one first.

office 2016 cloud attachments Mark Hachman

In Outlook 2016, most file “attachments” are links to the file stored in OneDrive. If the file isn’t there, it will be attached.

What we expected to happen, of course, was for Word to allow us to edit the document collaboratively in Word 2016, or else for Office to open Office Online and do it there. Brad was able to sign in with his PCWorld/IDG credentials and open the document in-app, but the “real-time” collaboration was more like playing checkers than Pong. Once Brad saved, I could see his edits, but only if I weren’t trying to edit the same text field at the time. An alert box also let me know that I wouldn’t be seeing real-time updates, just static changes. 

office 2016 word 2016 clip Mark Hachman

In Word 2016, this seems to be the extent of “real-time editing,” for now.

Otherwise, most Office 2016 apps are virtually identical to Office 2013, for now. I did notice a slightly narrower, less legible menu font during my testing on a Surface 3, compared to what Brad saw on his desktop, which could be a scaling issue with our different displays. 

Other promises still to keep

One of the more useful features of Office 2016 is the specialized search bar at the top of many of the Office apps. The “Tell me” bar, as Microsoft calls it, invites you to ask in the search field how to perform actions (such as adding footnotes), rather than hunt the feature down through a maze of menus. The best part is that it doesn’t tell you how to perform a specific function; it simply offers you a simple step to actually do it.

office 2016 tell me what to do Mark Hachman

The “Tell me” search bar allows you to simply ask the app what you want to do. At this point, it doesn’t work all that well.

Unfortunately, it sometimes flops. In Outlook 2015, I tried searching for “out of office,” instead of the more Office-like “automatic replies.” Neither query worked, whether as a search for the terms themselves or a more naturally-phrased query. In Word, however, searches for “insert bold text,” “insert footnote,” and “find Web art” all brought up what I was looking for.

One drawback, however, is the “Tell me” bar doesn’t actually reveal in what menu your search result is hiding, so you don't learn how to find it yourself next time. Short of becoming dependent upon Tell me, perhaps a secondary “take me there” button makes sense too, at least as an option.

Experiments that Microsoft conducted elsewhere may eventually bear fruit in Office 2016. Case in point: Bing Insights, where you can right-click a word and tap Bing’s knowledge base to quickly append links and artwork to enhance an Office document. But while Bing Insights may be live in Word Online, it’s not yet in Word 2016, though it's promised. You will, however, find Clutter, the tool for weeding out irrelevant interoffice email (it’s also part of Office 2013).

office 2016 groups Mark Hachman

Groups within Office 2016.

Outlook 2016 also has one feature that Microsoft didn’t highlight: Groups, an Outlook.com feature that’s now been added to the Outlook 2016 app.

Intelligence and business insights in Excel

Visually, Excel 2016 at this point looks virtually identical to its Office 2013 version. The difference, however, is what’s under the hood. 

Power Query, for example, was a separate plugin under Office 2013. With Office 2016, Microsoft has integrated it as a standard feature, allowing you to pull in external data from any number of sources. PowerBI—the business intelligence package that really forms the centerpiece of Microsoft’s future Excel vision—hasn’t been integrated. You can, however, export spreadsheets into PowerBI.com, the online version of PowerBI. PowerBI and its interesting, natural-language Q&A feature will make it into Excel, but not quite yet. 

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You can quickly extrapolate forecasts in Excel 2016.

One feature that Microsoft did add, however, is one-click forecasting, which mines your data for trends and extrapolates them out for a few periods of time. The “Tell me” search bar discovered that capability, but unfortunately, I couldn’t find the new charts and graphs that Microsoft says are in the new version (TreeMap, Sunburst, Waterfall, Box & Whisker and Histogram & Pareto) to test out.

I didn’t see anything new or noteworthy in either OneNote or PowerPoint. I did notice that notes loaded slowly in the new app, but that may have been a quirk of my network.

(Microsoft has also released a list of all the new features in the Office 2016 preview.)

Still to come: Apps that will talk to another

Microsoft’s new extensability APIs that it rolled out last week blaze the trail for the future of Office, enabling more collaboration not just between users, but between the apps themselves. Remember, we can expect a future where Cortana understands when your next meeting is, how long it will get there, and flags an nearby Uber car to pick you up at the appropriate time.

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Eventually, Office apps won’t just talk to each other, but hold their own conversations with outside apps.

Eventually, that capability will spread throughout the Office suite, but that will take time. Chris Johnson, a group product marketing manager at Microsoft, said last week at Build that Microsoft was opening up APIs behind OneNote, for example, but the extensibility shown on stage wasn’t yet there. “Being able to surface developers, interrogations, or solutions... inside our products, we see as really key to building nice productivity solutions,” he said.

Like the Windows 10 Insider program, expect new capabilities to be added to Office 2016 over time. The key question: Will Microsoft do enough to lure you off the preview when it expires? Because you’ll be in step with Microsoft as Office 2016 rolls out, you’re in good shape to answer that question.

Updated at 10:45 AM to clarify that the technical preview is a work in progress, and that real-time co-authoring and collaboration will eventually be added, according to Microsoft.

This story, "Hands on: Office 2016 preview focuses on data-gathering and collaboration in the cloud" was originally published by PCWorld.