New Office has compelling enhancements but also big holes

Microsoft made major improvements in Office's user interface and application functionality, but the lack of an iPad version is concerning

By , IDG News Service |  Software

The new version of Microsoft Office offers compelling enhancements to its capabilities and interface design, as well as improvements in cloud functionality that should make it a far better product than its predecessor.

However, gaps in support for non-Windows mobile platforms, questions about pricing and a continued reliance on locally installed software weaken the suite's potential for success and could open the door for competitors.

That's the initial assessment from various industry analysts who are following the release of the new Office version's public beta this week.

"There's a lot of value there," said Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester Research analyst. "It's the best version of Office ever."

So far, the consensus among many analysts and reviewers seems to be that Microsoft has done an outstanding job simplifying and improving the suite's user interface, which has been criticized in the past as cluttered and confusing, and optimizing it for tablets that use hand gestures and styluses for input.

Also getting high marks are new application features such as a "read mode" in Word that improves the reading experience, and a PDF "reflow" capability for opening and editing PDF files.

A "presenter view" in PowerPoint has also been praised because it privately shows various elements to the presenter that the audience doesn't see, including notes, upcoming slides and a clock for timing presentations. A better user experience and more powerful data analysis tools have been highlighted in Excel.

"There are a lot of new features in the applications themselves," said IDC analyst Melissa Webster. "They add up to increased user productivity."

Microsoft is also getting props for advancements in cloud functionality. While Microsoft will continue selling Office via an upfront, perpetual license -- the product branded Office 2013 -- it will also let people buy the suite as a cloud-based subscription service, which carries the existing Office 365 brand.

Today, Office 365 is a cloud-based applications suite for business users that typically includes online versions of Exchange, Lync and SharePoint, as well as Office Web Apps, all of which have a subset of the features of their on-premise counterparts.

Now, Office 365 is being offered to consumers as well, as a hosted version of the new Office applications. Although it is a cloud-based service, including online storage and upgrades delivered automatically, most of the software components need to be installed locally. Buyers will be able to install the software on up to five computers.

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