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Last month saw the release of Office 2016 by Microsoft. The software suite has been updated a number of times since it was first released, and the recent switch by Microsoft to a cloud-based strategy has given Office a new lease of life, not least in how you pay for your copy.
Let's start with the biggest challenge of all... how to approach a review of a product such as Office 2016? It remains a gargantuan project from Redmond. I could spend days talking about each of the major components of the office productivity suite, I could talk about the strategy and the implications of the product, or I could focus on how Microsoft is trying to change the image of itself and how it earns money. But I don't have days, I have a thousand or so words. So the question is, where do you start?
The jokey answer is 'near the end', so let's do just that. Office 2016 is an iterative update to Microsoft's dominant position in the productivity suites. It polishes the applications on offer and brings in a number of new features but there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. If you've never felt the need to use Office before, this is not the package for you. If you're coming up from older versions, do check the features list carefully to see if there is anything genuinely new that you are going to use.
Much like the first mission of the Surface hardware is to stem the tide of people switching to alternative platforms, Office 2016 feels like an application for the faithful. In that sense the new release is playing to a captive and raptured audience. That doesn't mean Microsoft has skimped on the work - far from it - but this is a refining product, not a revolutionary product.
And that's the point where Office 2016 feels like an alchemical mirror to the Windows operating system. Heralded as 'the last version of Windows you will need', Windows 10 takes you down the path of constant updates, small changes as required, rolling bug fixes and new features, in essence a living breathing operating system.
That's the plan for Office 2016 as well. Going forwards, Office 2016 will be updated as required, no tent pole release dates, just a program that evolves and stays relevant to you for the rest of your working life. Subscribe to Office now, and you'll get the next small update. And the next. And the next.
All of this is tied up in Office 365, Microsoft's key subscription service that is vital to its long-term health. If you have a subscription to Office 365, then you'll be able to download the Office 2016 apps to multiple computers. There are multiple options for business users to get an Office 365 subscription, but individual users can pick up Office 365 Personal for £6 a month which is suitable for a single user and installation of Office 2016, or Office 365 Home for £8 a month which will accommodate up to five different users and application installs. One-off pricing is also available, starting at £120 in the UK, but Microsoft's goal is to use Office 2016 as another reason to get you into Office 365.
Next: Moving into the cloud, and staying mobile...
The reason for this is to get Office into the cloud. While the previous version of Office did dabble with this, Office 2016 is tightly integrated with the cloud. it's a simple matter to have all your documents saving to the cloud and therefore accessible from any installation of Office or associated tools.
This is where the 'mobile' versions of the core apps come in. A quick look in smartphone stores across the world will find the mobile versions of Microsoft Office for Android and iOS... and Windows 10. Yes, it's possible to download the mobile versions of the Office apps to a Windows 10 desktop or laptop, and I would advise you to do so. They are great for quick edits and just getting ideas down without all of the power and complexity the larger apps offer. Mobility is a key part of the value of Office, and the clients for your mobile devices, be it smartphone, phablet, tablet, or ultraportable - all help that mission goal.
It's also helped by the use of the cloud. The default option, and the one that provides the most flexibility, is to save your documents to the cloud (Microsoft OneDrive). This keeps them accessible on all of your devices, and an Office 365 subscription comes with a terabyte of online storage, which should be enough in the current climate for all your needs (and if you go for the one-off purchase you are provided with just 15 GB of online storage, so you can see where the priorities lie).
I would definitely recommend you use the cloud as much as possible. Not only does it keep your files accessible (and backed up), it also allows Office 2016's big focus to kick in, which is collaborative working in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. This can happen in real-time on the same document, just select sharing from the menu, add an email address, and Office will do the rest. If you need to stay in touch during the editing process, Skype will handle both IM and video calling functions.
Yes, it looks remarkably like the solution used by Google in its cloud-based suites, but this is where the legacy of Microsoft will kick in. It's going to be far easier for corporate customers to keep using Office than switch to Google, and bringing the real-time collaboration tools will make it more likely that Office will remain the suite of choice.
Office 2016 is of course more than one application, and the 'triple' of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are still the major apps at the core of the Office experience. I've no doubt that anyone working in an office environment is going to make great use of these applications. As noted, little has changed in terms of the apps from the previous version of Office, and the iterative changes promised over the next few years will likely not make any major changes. You're going to know exactly what you're going to get with these apps now and in the future.
Next: Outlook, the minor apps, and conclusions...
Outlook is a bit of a different beast. Email may have been downgraded in the eyes of many in place of IM clients, but it still remains an important part of many office workers life. It's not a comfortable application to use, with a sprawl of icons, font sizes, tools, and icons seemingly thrown at the screen in the hope they make some sense. If you have an Exchange account it interfaces well, but for the personal user who is likely looking at accounts from other providers, Outlooks is not as polished.
In fact Outlook on the desktop is actually weaker than the mobile version of Outlook that Microsoft makes available for free on Android and iOS - the latter was an app Microsoft bought out, as opposed to the slow evolution of Outlook on the desktop. If there is an application that needs a bit more focus, thought, and polish in all of Office, it is Outlook.
The three 'minor apps' are also worth mentioning. Publisher continues to provide a competent desktop publishing experience with its focus on small business and home based templates, while Access is the database management system loved and hated in equal measures. My love of OneNote has been on show at Forbes before, and the update here, like that of the major apps, is more evolutionary. There are no totemic new features on show here, just wide integration across a number of platforms.
That is probably the biggest strength of Office 2016. You can work with your Office 365 subscription on a number of devices. Windows 10 for sure, but Office 2016 also runs on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Don't forget the mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote which are much lighter in use and perfect when you only need to make a few changes. I'd also be happy to argue that the lack of legacy furniture and a better focus on UI and layout means that the mobile versions - especially Word Mobile - are better suited to distraction free creating.
It's no longer restricted to hardware with 'Windows' in the about box. Office already had a competent foothold on OSX and that remains the case with Office 2016. While Apple does push the inclusion of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote as free downloads, the decades of history behind Microsoft Office is a strong marketing movement. No doubt the consumers who do make the jump from Windows to OSX hardware will take comfort knowing that Office 2016 is there waiting for them. And of course Microsoft is going to get that subscription to Office 365 just the same.
With the rise of mobile, Microsoft's move to have Office available on iOS and Android (as well as Windows Phone and Windows 10 powered smartphones) is the logical extension of being able to work on your documents no matter where you are, or what device you are on. With Office 2016 'back at base', the smartphone applications with you wherever you are, and all your data in the cloud, the lightweight mobile applications are best suited to creativity and editing when on he road, Microsoft appears to have covered all the bases in modern life.
Even the worry of updates and being left behind as the code is refreshed is taken care of thanks to the 'software as a service' approach that is being undertaken by Office 365.
CEO Satya Nadella has been moving Microsoft away from a reliance on hardware, and putting the focus on the cloud. All the components of Office, including Office 2016, work in harmony with each other at a software level, and don't care what hardware you use.
Office 2016 is mature, knows what it needs to do to deliver, and now has a much wider market to address than any previous version of the productivity suite. There's always more work to do, but I see little reason for existing customers to not buy into Microsoft's vision of a new Office. For those looking to move up to an office suite, or even make a switch from a rival ecosystem, do be aware that you need to fully buy into Microsoft's vision of the cloud and make use of all of these services, but there's no obvious gotchas that should stop you if that's the path you want to take.
I am known for my strong views on mobile technology, online media, and the effect this has on and communication will have on the public conscious and existing businesses.
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