Here’s the New Office. Same as the Old Office

Okay, not really. Well, sort of.

This past week, Microsoft rolled out the latest and greatest version of their flagship productivity suite, Microsoft Office 2016. On the surface, it’s not that much different from the previous version. There are some tweaks to the user interface but nothing that makes people go “Wow!” It seems cleaner, less cluttered, and more readable. Other than that, the UI is pretty much the same.

There are a few big differences though between the old Office and the new Office that are noteworthy. First, is the new Share feature. Share allows documents, spreadsheets, and presentations to be shared with others without resorting to emailing attachments. Files are saved to OneDrive and a link to that file is sent to others instead of a file attachment. Rather than generate tons of copies of a file, Office 2016 makes it easy to have everyone access the original, with proper access controls of course. There have been ways to do this from OneDrive for a while but now it is integrated directly into Office applications.

Sharing brings us to the other new and cool feature – co-authoring. Multiple people can now work on a document at the same time. There is a catch though – this doesn’t work with desktop applications. Files are locked by the desktop app and can only be edited by one person at a time and won’t update in real-time. However, when documents are edited in the online application, they are updated immediately and comments are also seen in real-time. This creates a difference in behavior between the online application and desktop application that is very confusing. I get that it’s a technology thing but the average user of Microsoft Word won’t understand why they have to use the online version sometimes instead of the desktop version. The power of this feature will be severely limited by this disparity.

Another great feature is Smart Lookup. Smart Lookup allows you to highlight some text in an Office file and immediately do a contextual search of internet resources via Bing. Typically searching the internet when working on a document means having to open a browser, copy in some key works, search, and then flip back and forth, cutting and pasting, to incorporate the retrieved information. With Smart Lookup, the process is reduced to highlighting some text and right clicking “Smart Lookup.” The retrieved information opens in a panel to the right of whatever is being edited so that information can be viewed or copied immediately.

There are clearly a couple of glitches. Initially, many Microsoft business customers had problems with Skype for Business. The installation for Office 2016 first deleted old versions of Microsoft Office, including Skype for Business. It didn’t always reinstall it and manual installation generated an error suggesting a rollback to Office 2013. The forums really lit up over that one and it was fixed a couple days later. Office desktop applications seem to get confused by synchronized OneDrive folders. Opening a file from a OneDrive folder can yield a different version of a file than the local folder that is actually synchronized to the OneDrive one. Meanwhile, OneDrive doesn’t indicate that there is any synchronization pending.

Overall, there is nothing shocking or amazing about the new Office. It’s similar enough to the old Office. The few major changes are all good features, albeit unstable and inconsistent ones. There is a clear tension between the online and desktop versions of the Office applications that needs to be resolved. No one expects the features to enjoy complete parity but something like co-authoring needs to work the same no matter the platform.

Unfortunately, the glitches and inconsistencies make Office 2016 look like it’s still a work in progress. It’s a bit prettier, has some useful features, but is still a bit ragged around the edges. Here’s to hoping that Office 2016 doesn’t die before it gets old.

P.S. For those of you missing The Who references, you really need to dive into them more. Seriously, they are the forerunners of DIY indie, punk, and hard rock.