Office 365 promised continual improvements, but is Microsoft really making the core apps better?

No-one likes a stealth tax, yet that’s exactly what some people accuse Microsoft of implementing. While we wouldn’t want to go back to the days of paying hundreds of dollars for a single-user licence of Office desktop software, the monthly drip starts to add up. So is Microsoft delivering real value for money or are we all mugs?

Make no mistake, Office 365 is a crucial part of Microsoft’s drive towards a cloud-first future. And with it, profitability: it made a $US21 billion profit in 2017 compared to $US12 billion in 2015, when Office 365 was released. Through aggressive pricing, marketing and a steady depreciation of the standalone versions, Redmond has done everything in its power to make Office 365 the standard way to buy Office.

Sadly for Microsoft, not everyone is keen to jump on board.

The sales pitch for Office 365 has always focused on shifting away from the big releases to a continually evolving office suite, with new features rolling out on an almost monthly basis. Yet, you don’t have to be a cynic to suggest that Office 365 still looks and feels an awful lot like the version that launched three years ago, which closely resembled the one that emerged back in 2012.

Are we paying a subscription for software that’s constantly improving, its incremental improvements being overlooked because we’ve forgotten what we started with a few years ago? Or are we merely paying a monthly retainer for the same old Office? To find out, we’re going to delve into Office’s features, focusing on those that have rolled out since July 2015, when Office 2016 hit the shelves.

What’s changed in Office?

If you’re a casual Office user making light use of basic features, or even an old-school power user with an established way of working, you might agree that Office hasn’t changed noticeably in the past three years. In terms of the basic look and feel of its core features, Office 2016 wasn’t a huge leap forwards from Office 2013, with much of the focus on collaborative editing and teamwork tools, alongside closer integration with OneDrive and Skype.

Moreover, many of the post-2015 enhancements centre on current Microsoft preoccupations, which may or may not interest you. Many focus on the pen and ink tools being pushed on the company’s Surface devices, or on support for the 3D content tools that came with the Windows 10 Creators Update.

For instance, a new customisable, portable pen set can be used across all Office apps on all devices, while new ink and pencil effects give you fresh options for annotations, notes and plans. You can use a pen to select and change objects in Word, PowerPoint and Excel, or sketch out rough squares, circles and blobs before converting them into shapes in Word. These features might be game changers if you’ve embraced the stylus, but for those of us working on a normal desktop or laptop, they’re almost irrelevant.

As for 3D content, it’s interesting that all the major applications now support 3D models, allowing you to pull one into a document then resize and rotate it to your heart’s content. But for many business users, the lack of relevant content – or resources and desire to create their own – is a real sticking point. There’s good news for 2D artwork: the Remove Background feature gives you Photoshop-style tools that can remove a plain background in a matter of seconds.

Other changes simply ensure that features apply more consistently throughout the suite. For example, real-time collaboration features, where you can see a document updating, character by character, as another editor works on it, were restricted to Word in the initial release. Now they’re there in Excel and PowerPoint too, though you need to share the files through OneDrive or SharePoint to benefit.

Word

Let’s start with Word. One of Office 2016’s biggest strengths has become its use of Microsoft’s AI and machine learning to get you started on common Office tasks or enhance the quality of your work.

Take Word’s Editor pane, for example, or the new Researcher tool. Call the latter up from the References tab, type in a subject, and Bing will go away and search for sources. From these you can pull out notes and even quotes, with Researcher tracking citations and adding them automatically to the document’s bibliography.

Word’s Editor tool is far more than a replacement spellchecker – used wisely, it can genuinely improve your use of words

You may prefer working independently through your browser, or you might trust Google to deliver stronger sources, but Researcher can be great for getting a head start on a topic or searching for a relevant snippet of info to support a key point. It’s arguably of most use to students or journalists, but if you spend any time trying to pull notes together for a report or meeting, having a built-in tool that tracks sources and citations can be a real time-saver.

Right next to Researcher, you’ll find the new Smart Lookup, again powered by Bing. Apply it to a word or phrase and you’re presented with not only a definition, but more in-depth explanations from a range of different sources, along with more general web search results. Smart Lookup isn’t always all that smart, however. I looked up “fiesta”, in the context of festivities, and was shown content around Ford’s small car and a US grocery chain.

Type in a subject and Researcher will bring up a list of sources, making it easy to get to grips with a topic

Other new features might not set the world alight. You can page through longer documents like a book instead of continuously scrolling through them – great on a big desktop screen, if almost useless on a laptop.

You can also add a character count to the status bar, or view and restore changes in shared documents without leaving Word. Smart Quotes have been improved to work more accurately around punctuation.

Meanwhile, the new Translator for Office 365 feature is basically a replacement for the old Mini Translator window. On the plus side, it’s a more effective tool, handling longer passages and producing reasonable working translations that make almost perfect sense.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint hasn’t sat still for the past few years, either, with the most useful addition being Designer. While no replacement for a real designer or a strong set of corporate templates, its Design Ideas can transform a deck of slides into something that looks professional.

If you’re pressed for time, the new QuickStarter template could be tempting. Just type in a topic and this intelligent tool goes to work with the help of Bing, asking you to pick from a selection of visual treatments before coming back with a suggested structure, relevant facts to get you started and even ideas for other areas or points for further research. It’s a feature that should play well with Office 365 Home and Personal subscribers, but is it useful in a business context? Possibly not. It’s one of those tools that hints at a future where intelligent assistants dig out ideas and insights to improve your productivity, but at the moment it’s more suited to the classroom than the boardroom.

SmartLookup provides useful reference material– and the ability to import 3D models

Other additions are smaller, but potentially more useful. The new Morph transition allows you to duplicate a slide and move or add elements, then morph between the original and the copy with all the elements shifting simultaneously. It’s a classic maximum impact, minimum effort effect. The same is true of the new Zoom feature. Insert a zoom into a slide, select the slides or sections you want included and PowerPoint will flick from one to the next with a sweeping zoom in, zoom out animation.

Excel

If Word and PowerPointboast eye-catching new features, Excel’s enhancements are less immediate. Few of us thrill to the sound of faster opening of complex documents, improved autocomplete or a more flexible copy feature, but all improve basic usability, albeit in ways that you might not notice.

Excel’s map chart tool allows you to compare data – for example, population density – using maps gleaned from Bing

Other improvements make more of a difference when you’re dealing with large or complex datasets in research or enterprise. Over the past two years, Microsoft has steadily drip-fed out additions to the Query Editor, such as new transformations for Adding Columns by Example or splitting and grouping columns to manipulate their data. Again, these features rely on Microsoft’s algorithms to get Excel to handle the grunt work, leaving you to dig further or refine. When you do come up with something interesting, closer integration with Power BI makes it easier to share queries or insights with colleagues.

Of course, not every Excel user ever touches the Query Editor, let alone uses Power BI, but if you do then the experience should have improved.

Outlook

You could argue that, with Outlook, Microsoft is stealing Google’s tricks. The new Focused Inbox view is one example, borrowing from Google’s Inbox, but Outlook has also pinched Gmail’s idea of sucking information out of your incoming emails and using it to create reminders or events.

Gmail users will know that this is particularly useful for meetings and travel arrangements, and Outlook does a reasonable job of putting appointments, flights and hotel reservations on your schedule where they’ll be more accessible, though Microsoft’s assistant isn’t quite as smart as Google’s when it comes to spotting and capturing the vital info.

Outlook’s new, Google-style Focused Inbox view makes it easy to quickly see your most important emails via a tab

Vanilla Outlook 2016 introduced a move away from sending files via email to leaving those files in your OneDrive cloud and sending permissions to share, view, download and edit. More recent changes have made this more straightforward, by allowing you to drag-and-drop cloud-stored attachments as if they were attached to the email. You can also set permissions to these files, ensuring that people can’t edit and reuse them if you only want them to view.

Finally, sales teams or smaller businesses shouldn’t underestimate the Office 365-exclusive Outlook Customer Manager add-in. This enables you to set up companies, contacts, events and deals within a customer-centric view, so that you can view touchpoints, conversations, meetings and opportunities company by company, with all the relevant data close to hand. It transforms Outlook into something a little more like a customer relationship management tool; one that’s tracking your email conversations and calendar events to give you a bigger-picture view.

Just be aware, however, that it takes a while to set up and start using, and even more time before it starts getting to grips with your data and throwing up useful information.

The verdict

So, are you really benefiting from that Office 365 Subscription?

Based on the incremental rollout of new features, it depends. None of the new features are what you might call game-changers. None seriously impact everyday Office workflows or are likely to transform the way you do your job. In fact, if you use Office the way many of us do, working with established tools and templates, you might not even be aware that these new features exist.

To balance, some are genuinely useful. Word’s Editor is an improvement on the old Spelling and Grammar check when you’re giving work a read through. PowerPoint’s Designer can help non-designers produce better-looking slides.

Outlook’s Focused Inbox is a better way to organise your mail. And while Excel’s enhancements are more specialist, they provide similar shortcuts for data analysis. Most of all, these tools point to Microsoft’s wider vision of an Office where intelligence and automation make it easier to get real work done.

What’s there right now might not be enough for those paying monthly or annual subscriptions and wondering why Office isn’t evolving faster, in which case the question is how much value you’re getting from the other benefits: the Outlook.com email, the OneDrive storage or SharePoint, Teams and Yammer in the Business Premium version. If you or your company use them, then it’s hard to argue with the package on value for money. If not, Microsoft still has a way to go before it convinces us that the “as a service” model is really paying off.

Let’s be clear: as a bundle of services Office 365 is an excellent deal, but if you’re only paying to use the core Office apps of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, it might be time for a rethink.



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