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Microsoft's plans for Office: More features, more mobile, more intelligent

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Microsoft's plans for Office: More features, more mobile, more intelligent

Introduction and reinventing productivity

25 years ago, Office was just Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Since then Microsoft has added more programs, thousands of new features, and first of all servers that you could run in your own office, then cloud services to take the load away from you.

Even before the first version of Office on Windows, Office 1.0 was available on the Mac and now you can get Office on iOS and Android, and in your browser. What's left for Microsoft to do with Office and what is the plan?

Reinventing productivity

According to Microsoft CFO Amy Hood (speaking this week at the Ultrabooks Global Technology conference), the plan is "continuing to expand the definition" of Office, by adding more features and services Microsoft can sell; "you put more in and you charge more," she said.

Don't expect Microsoft to change Office as dramatically as it did Windows. "We didn't say reinvent Office," she noted. "The ambition is not to reinvent Office. The ambition is to reinvent productivity and business processes."

That's much bigger than putting the Office servers into the Office 365 service if that's all you think of when you say Office, Hood says that's because Microsoft made a mistake talking so much about that as "the narrowness of the vision".

Instead, when you think about Office, you should be thinking about Dynamics and Power BI and Intune, as well as Office 365 and Skype for Business and the familiar Office applications. "We're adding new things to the umbrella we call Office," she pointed out. "That's analytics, it's security... And the third pillar is voice." In fact, it's "anything that has a workflow to it".


Dual use

If it's something you do for work that a Microsoft tool can make you more productive at, on your own or as part of a team, Office wants to help with it whether that's you looking at customer feedback, your team comparing sales figures, or your IT admin making sure you can't copy that feedback and sales information and send it to a competitor by managing the apps you get the information from through Office 365 and Intune. That's what Microsoft used to call 'dual use' which just means you'll use the same apps at work and in your personal life.

That's another reason Office will stay on iPad and Android and any other platforms that become popular. "If we're going to build great productivity software and we want our users to use our productivity software it will be important to ship it cross-plat[form]," Hood said, explaining why it would be "crazy" for Microsoft not to have a good relationship with Apple, and why the Office team had bought companies like Accompli, Wunderlist, Sunrise and now MileIQ, and why the founder of Accompli, Javier Soltero, is now the corporate vice president running all the Outlook products.

"Those are all terrific productivity experiences cross-plat, which is a common scenario for people that have an Android or an iPhone and a Windows PC. Having that experience be consistent, gorgeous and accrue [back to Office] is incredibly important to us."

Mobile matters and machine learning

Mobile matters

All this means where Office is going is the same place it is now, only more so. Office is as much mobile apps as desktop software, both powered by cloud services the Outlook mail app on iOS is able to tell you what mail you're likely to want to look at first because it has your mail in the cloud to analyse, just as the Clutter folder in your Outlook inbox is filled by machine learning running inside Exchange on Office 365. So we're going to see more new mobile apps like the Microsoft Garage Invite for iOS app, which lets you suggest multiple times for a meeting.


Maybe those apps will end up as a feature in a future version of Exchange and Outlook; maybe not. Some, like Sway a new authoring tool from the creator of OneNote, that creates something halfway between an app and a website will stay as their own tool, adding extra features and connections. And like Invite and Sway, these new apps are likely to start on iOS first and only come to Windows later.

Office will get new features as services on Office 365, like the Delve system that shows you what colleagues are working on (and lets you give them a Facebook-style 'thumbs up'). And the Office apps on Windows and iPad and probably Android and eventually Windows Mobile too will get plugins and add-ons through the Office Store (although we wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft changes the name a few times).

Some of those will be from Microsoft, like the Social Share plugin from Microsoft Garage, which lets you send slides directly from PowerPoint to Twitter and Facebook. Others will be from partners like Uber and even competitors like Box and Dropbox.

Importance of machine learning

But Office will also get new features right in the Windows and Mac apps, maybe every month. Office 365 has its roadmap for new features on the business service and businesses can opt in to try those out on their tenant. As part of any Office 365 subscription, you get new features PowerPoint already has a new Designer that suggests layouts, which looks very much like the same feature in Sway, as well as a Morph tool that animates individual objects from one slide to another. But if you want to try out new features as they're being developed, the way you can with Windows 10, you can sign up as an Office Insider.

Like Windows, every part of Office is now a service, with a regular changelog of what's new. Our prediction many of the features that get added to Office will be driven by machine learning, which already powers predictive analytics and Sway's design layouts. Some of those may show up courtesy of Cortana, which can already warn you when it's time to leave for a meeting in your Outlook calendar but we're guessing Microsoft will be pretty careful not to let Cortana turn into Clippy.

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