I shouldn't have been surprised by the mountain of feedback and questions I received in the wake of my article Microsoft Office 15 Preview. But I was. My intention was to quickly examine this pre-release Office suite on a Windows 8 tablet and move on until some future date when Microsoft finally opened up about this release, focusing in the meantime solely on Windows 8 and, as they came up, other related topics.

So much for that theory. As it turns out, you have questions. Lots of questions. There have been some reports online about Office 15, I know. Other online reports about Office 15 have consisted solely of regurgitated Microsoft documentation, of which there are reams. In fact, when you compare the sheer amount of information that Microsoft has provided to its Office 15-testing partners and to the comparative pamphlets provided by the Windows folks to those testers, it really makes you wonder. It really does.

Regardless, it occurs to me that actual experience using this new Office suite--which is really just part of a much wider effort that encompasses Office servers, services, and other products--is inherently more valuable. I'm not sure that I'm ready to turn over the writing of my latest book, Windows 8 Secrets, to Word 15, not quite yet. But I can certainly perform my daily work in this suite. So I will.

With all that in mind, I will indeed be diving more deeply into Office 15, and much earlier than originally intended. And I'll start with a series covering the new features in each Office 15 application. This first article will cover general new features that extend across the suite.

Installation

I've installed two versions of Office 15 so far. The first was a Click-to-Run based install that uses Microsoft's application virtualization technology to isolate the application suite from the rest of the OS and provide a new way to run two versions of Office--Office 2010 and Office 15--side-by-side without any compatibility issues. (More on this below). Click-to-Run has other advantages, including offering the user a much smaller download, so it will likely be the main choice for new web-based installs of Office.

More recently, I've installed Office 15 using the traditional Windows installer as documented in  Microsoft Office 15 Preview. This type of install makes for a less elegant experience side-by-side with a previous Office version. If you've done this, you know that you can't, for example, have two different Outlook versions running on the same PC. And that as you switch back and forth between applications in the two suite versions, the Office installer runs briefly each time and, in this case, actually asks you to reboot each time as well. (This doesn't appear to be strictly necessary, but it's still annoying.) As noted in that article, it's best to simply replace your current version of Office with the new version if possible.

Product branding?

While Office 15 is clearly a code-name, there has been some conjecture about how this family of Office products will be branded. There is evidence of both Office 2012 and Office 2013 branding throughout the product, and the related SharePoint update is often referred to as SharePoint 2013. What these products will really be named is, of course, still up in the air.

New features in the Office 15 applications

Across the board, the Office 15 applications adopt a new "Metro-like" look and feel that has absolutely nothing to do with Metro-style apps or the WinRT (Windows Runtime) APIs under the covers. In fact, as I alluded to in my blog post Office 15 and Zune: Separated at Birth?, the visual similarities between these applications and the Zune PC software are, in fact, not coincidental. While it's not fair to say that these applications share an underlying technical core per se, they do in fact use the same APIs, and of course the visual similarities are immediately obvious. Some have mistakenly called them Metro-styled. They are not. They are simply "Metro-like," by design, and not "pure Metro" (as Microsoft describes it).

The intent here is obvious, I think: Thanks to their content creation goals, the Office applications exceed the simplicity guidelines for true Metro apps, of course, and regardless, these applications are traditional desktop applications anyway, and could (and will) run on earlier versions of Windows than Windows 8. But there's been an effort to make the Office 15 applications work equally well, if such a thing is possible, for those who will remain with the desktop on traditional computers and those that will stick largely to the Metro environment on tablets. So there's a hybrid personality here, one that (hopefully) makes as much sense on a PC as it will on a device.

Each Office application sports a ribbon UI, as before, but the ribbon is always hidden by default in a nod towards a simpler, Metro-like design. Each sports a full-screen mode, and while this doesn't hide the taskbar automatically in the Technical Preview, I have to believe that's the goal. And each has a new Touch Mode button in the Quick Access Toolbar that, when enabled, makes all of the ribbon buttons and other onscreen controls bigger and more set apart from each other and thus easier to tap on those screens. Some have reported that Touch Mode doesn't work in the Technical Preview, but that is not true: It works in all of the applications. But you must have the ribbon pinned open to enable this new mode.

ribbons
Normal ribbon (top) vs. Touch Mode (bottom)

A clean, white interface with color-coded border elements marks each application: Word is blue, Excel is green, and so on. This seems stark at first, but the goal, again, is clear and obviously Metro-inspired: The user should be visually drawn to the content they are creating, and not to the ribbon or other onscreen elements that make up the application UI. Microsoft will use this same approach in other modern desktop applications it is creating--like the next Visual Studio--and while some may react strongly to this at first, it does grow on you and, more important, actually seems to work.

Less successful, so far at least, is that these applications, when windowed (i.e. not full-screen) dispense with the normal window shadow effect and use instead a color-coded "halo" around the window. This looks fine over a wallpaper photo, but when the underlying imagery is white--like it often is in a window--it's distracting. I'd like to see a way to turn it off.

glow
The weird application "glow" can be seen here on the top and left edge of the window

Each application also supports the notion of a Zune-like background image. The default will be blank (plain white), but Microsoft has enabled a pattern in the Tech Preview to draw your attention to it, and several patterns are available. I suppose this somewhat makes up for the lack of ribbon color choices that we used to enjoy, but not really as they're very subtle and, I think, superfluous to the tasks at hand.

In Office 15, each application now includes a so-called Start experience, similar to that employed in recent Mac versions of Office, that both provide a bit of color and let new users choose between a collection of document template types. You can turn this Start experience off, and I have in the applications I use most frequently. But I could see this being useful and desirable to many. Most of the Office applications have been rethought for widescreen displays, too, so Word's reading mode now works in an interesting new layout with horizontal scrolling, and PowerPoint can make 16 x 9 presentations.

The Office 15 applications also integrate very nicely and seamlessly with various online services, and a new Office Web Extensions platform will help developers create new browser-like add-ons for Office applications that will further enhance the abilities of each application in new ways going forward. And like Windows, Office is getting its own online store, the Office Marketplace, where users will find these extensions and other Office-related solutions. Businesses will be able to deploy Office solutions to users through private interfaces, and the Office Marketplace will be available directly from inside of the applications.

store
Office Marketplace with new "Agave" Office Web Extensions.

Moving on

I've only been using this latest Office 15 pre-release version for a short time, so every day is a new discovery and a new adventure. But I'll start filling out the details about individual applications, starting with Word 15 next. That way, you can learn about these applications and their new features pretty much as I do.