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

microsoft office logo feb 2015
Credit: Microsoft

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 a dedicated app—yet. 

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 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 for our different displays (we're checking with Microsoft). 

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