Office 2013/365 may be Microsoft's most pervasive software package yet

New interface design and cloud-centric features could make Office 2013/365 Microsoft's most pervasive software package to date.

With the help of Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft's Office Division, CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled Office 2013 and the latest iterations of Office 365 at a press conference in San Francisco yesterday. Unsurprisingly, the next versions of Office have taken on the same flavor as Windows 8, with streamlined, uncluttered interfaces and deep integration with the cloud and social media. Interface tweaks for, and synergies with, social media, smartphones and tablets abound.

During the presentation, a handful of the most popular Office applications were shown off, including PowerPoint, Word, Outlook, and One Note. Although DelBene and Ballmer both explained that only a fraction of the changes coming with Office 2013/365 were shown off, the glimpses given seemed impressive. Office 2013/365 isn’t simply an update to Office 2010 with a few minor interface tweaks. In addition to rethinking virtually every menu, the interfaces have been sculpted for touch input, and there’s been an obvious focus on collaboration and social media integration. And many of the changes should prove useful features to both mobile and desktop users.

Microsoft’s vision for your modern office

I’m only going to talk about a couple of the features that stood out to me during the presentation. I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of coverage in the coming days and you can even try the software for yourself right here. To quickly cover some of the more substantial changes, the ribbon is hidden by default, but easily accessibly with a single-click/tap, which I think cleans up the main interface immensely. There’s a new presentation mode in PowerPoint that aids presenters with an easy-to-use interface and even a built-in timer. And Outlook sports a totally new look with a “quick actions” tab in the right pane to aid in the completion of common tasks, a “peek” feature at the bottom for quick access to your calendar and people menus, and an in-line reply feature that should speed-up replies for short e-mails that don’t require long responses.

A Window 8/Metro-style edition of One Note was also demoed, which seems to improve upon the current version in a few ways. But it was one particular feature during this portion of the demo that caught my eye and shows how much thought Microsoft has put into optimizing the next version of Office for touch. That feature was a new Radial menu that makes altering font attributes and other aspects of a document quick and easy, with a finger, stylus or mouse. When you see the radial menu in action, you’ll understand what I mean - it seems really intuitive.

Office 2013 features a new radial menu, visible at the upper-right

The next thing that that really stood out is technically very minor, but I feel it will have a major impact on consumers. The next versions of Office will save your documents to Microsoft’s SkyDrive service by default. You can still save files locally if you choose, but the default option will send all of your data into the cloud. I’m sure that’s going to scare some users, but the seamless integration with SkyDrive makes it possible to access your files from any internet-connected device, which also happens to be running Office. During the demo, DelBene saved a document that he had edited on a Samsung tablet (I guess the rumors are true that Samsung will have a Windows RT tablet ready for launch) and then immediately opened it on a Nokia Windows Phone.

This kind of stuff isn’t new, but for the overwhelming majority of Office users that aren’t tech savvy, seamless, easy cloud/SkyDrive integration is going to be huge. Everyone from students to CEOs will be able to access their files from their desktops, tablets, and phones with nary a thought. For this feature alone, I can see may IT departments embracing Windows 8 and Office 2013/365.

Pricing and availability information wasn’t given, but Ballmer did say that the next versions of Office will be available as a cloud-based subscription service or purchased via physical media. Widows RT-based devices will have Office Home and Student 2013 RT included, which contains new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.