July 16, 2012, 8:46 PM — The next version of Microsoft Office, unveiled on Monday, is a dramatic departure from the software that millions of users have come to know, built for the cloud and for touch-based computing and packed with features that make it more social and, Microsoft hopes, more intuitive to use than past releases.
CEO Steve Ballmer announced that a technical preview of the new Office 365 -- the online version of the product -- is available now to download and test at www.office.com/preview. He said it's the first version of Office built from the ground up for online use, and called it "the most ambitious release of Office we've ever done."
There will also be a shrink-wrapped version, called Office 2013, but it was the online version that Microsoft emphasized Monday. The company demonstrated the new applications, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook and OneNote, at a press event in San Francisco.
In each case the user interface appears cleaner, with far more white space than in previous versions, and the programs have been optimized for touch using fingers or a stylus. Many of the apps support pinch-to-zoom, for example, and documents can be moved around and off the screen with a fingertip.
The applications will also work well with a keyboard and mouse, according to Microsoft, though it didn't show that on Monday. The apps were all demonstrated on a Samsung tablet running the soon-to-be-released Windows 8 OS.
Word exemplifies some of the bigger changes. Upon opening the online version, the user first has to log in and then sees their recently used documents and templates. Because it's a cloud-based service, the new Word can remember what the user was doing when they last closed the program, regardless of what system they are using it on. The application can take them back to the point they left off typing in a document, for example.
Documents are stored in Microsoft's SkyDrive service by default, but users can choose to store them locally as well, said Microsoft's Kirk Koenigsbauer, who gave a 30-minute tour of the new Office.
Microsoft has also embedded some communications functions into Word. For example, if users are collaborating on a document and one of them edits a sentence, another user can tap the sentence and a box pops up showing who made the edits. The box includes presence information for that person, and if they're online at that moment, the user can send them an instant message from within Word.
Word also includes a new reading mode that mimics some of the features in Amazon's Kindle. Tapping the screen lets the user dim the background or change its color. For example, in the dark, the user can make the background black and the text white.