Office 2016 Is Microsoft’s Best Hope to Show It’s Changed
Building 5 is part of the cluster of buildings that were among the first erected at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters 13 miles east of downtown Seattle—so I’m told, on a recent trip here. That would have been back in the late ’80s, when perhaps only a few prescient people could have predicted how the company would emerge as one of the world’s biggest and most historic technology firms—and how its command post would grow right along with it. Today, Microsoft’s headquarters, much like the headquarters of every other tech giant, is an open, sprawling campus: 80 buildings spanning 500 acres, with an on-site mall, fields and courts for almost every sport imaginable—including baseball and cricket—and landscaping that includes hiking trails and waterfalls.
I don’t see any of that, though. I drive right up to Building 5 on the southeast edge of the campus—today it’s the Skype building—and am ushered into a sterile, white-walled conference room to hear about Microsoft’s vision for the future of productivity—a vision tied to the company’s familiar past: meet the new Microsoft Office.
The spiel unfolds like a bit of tech PR self-parody: every minute feature of Office 2016 detailed in a wall-to-wall five-hour span. I meet with Microsoft Office product managers who walk me through a blur of demonstrations. I meet with two guys responsible for the apps Microsoft seems particularly proud of in this release: the updated Outlook and a new app, Sway. I meet with Microsoft engineers, who tell me stories that illustrate just how much of a culture shift had to happen, under newish CEO Satya Nadella, to deliver product updates more quickly and get this version of Office out the door. It’s interesting, and telling that it feels as though the reason Microsoft brought me up here is to become well-versed enough in Office 2016 that I could act as an in-depth product reviewer.
And of course, the company does have a vested interest in making sure Office’s reviewers can enumerate those new features—which include things like real-time co-authoring inside of documents; Skype in-app integration; cloud-based attachments; and a machine learning-based help feature called Tell Me—since those features are meant to telegraph the overarching message Microsoft wants the public to hear: we totally understand how you get your work done today, and we know what you’ll need to be productive in the future.
It’s a message that Microsoft under Nadella is seeking to embrace to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world where the business model that made Bill Gates rich is less and less relevant. To succeed, Microsoft can’t just be software that you buy; it has to be the way you work. And for decades, the way millions have done their work, like or not, is on Office.
You Still Use Office
There’s no doubt that work habits have changed, often drastically, over the past few years. The rise of mobile and cloud services means that spare moment we have in the lunch line isn’t just an opportunity to check Facebook. We peek into our emails, reword a phrase or two in a cloud document, and shoot off informative missives about the lunch meal options to coworkers via work chat. We prefer apps that buzz our phones in our pockets while we’re away from our desks, apps that let us know what we should be paying attention to at work—right now—and apps that work across all different kinds of devices and operating systems.
A few short years ago, no one ever thought they could love a piece of productivity software. Now, services like Slack, Trello, Evernote, Box, and Quip are inspiring devotion among white-collar workers. In the recent past, what IT would allow on your work devices was so locked down that it was unthinkable you would get to pick and choose which apps and services to use, let alone mix personal and business data on your machine. Nowadays, the BYOD (bring your own device) movement has had some time to mature, along with something that may very well be called “bring your own apps.” Is your company dragging its feet on purchasing an official license for something you really want to use? No problem: small teams are increasingly signing up ad hoc to use apps of their choice. (Startups love this, by the way—it’s an opportunity for them, once those rebellious teams reach critical mass inside a company, to convert those companies into real customers.)
And yet, even with what looks to be a kind of funeral for more traditional software like Office—“software is dead, long live services”—few of us have ever really broken up with Microsoft completely. Office has for so long set the standard for how we’ve expected to do work, and it lingers in the work we do now, no matter how self-consciously we try to change. There’s no avoiding that stray file you receive from a boss—or your mom—with “Track Changes” enabled. Or maybe you need to help your younger sibling write her first resume. Maybe a website requires you to upload some form as a *.doc or *.xls. The simple fact that you probably know what those file extensions mean shows just how embedded Office is in digital culture.
Microsoft sees those entrenched ways as an opportunity. People are already, still, a part of the Office ecosystem. Microsoft’s job in now to convince them—us—that with the introduction of Office 2016’s new features, it’s worth your while to use Office for every kind of work you’ve shifted onto other apps. And in Microsoft’s favor, it’s got a good head start over even the most popular newfangled productivity tools: 1 in 7 people on the planet (1.2 billion in total) use Office today. The number of consumer subscriptions on Office 365—Microsoft’s cloud-based subscription service—grew 22 percent in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2015, from 12.4 million to 15.2 million subscribers. Microsoft also saw a 74 percent increase in the number of commercial subscribers in that quarter compared to the same quarter one year ago. According to the company, there have been more than 150 million downloads of Office on iPhones, iPads and Android tablets in the fourth fiscal quarter of 2015.
“The company has a really big focus on three core ambitions that Satya likes to talk about—more intelligent cloud, more personal computing, and reinventing productivity,” says Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Office division. “For everyone who’s on the Office team, it’s been really gratifying to know that Office is really front and center of that transformation in the company.”
Microsoft’s big ambition, the way Owen Braun, a group program manager for the Office engineering team, explains it to me, is to “be everywhere, on all devices, where people are productive.” But in order to accomplish that, the company must convince the world that it has indeed undergone a paradigm shift in how it thinks about work and productivity. Office 2016 can’t just be the same old Office with yet more toolbars. Microsoft needs to erase the image of Office as an old, lumbering giant and replace it with an impression of the nimble flexibility enjoyed by all those buzzy startups with which it now finds itself competing. The question, though, is whether a company that really is a big, old giant can overcome the ingrained ways that could stand in the way of its ambitions.
‘Hell Has Frozen Over’
Koenigsbauer remembers the moment he walked onstage during Apple’s big September keynote event in great detail—a moment one journalist described by merely saying: “Hell has frozen over.” Proudly, he recalls that Phil Schiller, Apple’s chief marketer, teed up his entrance after talking about the iPad Pro by announcing, “Who to know better about productivity than Microsoft? These guys know productivity!”
“It was quite an interesting moment, because I came out and people were sort of gobsmacked,” Koenigsbauer laughs. “They were like, ‘Who the heck is this guy? What’s he doing?’” His entrance, he recalls, was met with silence and blank stares. “There was a bit of a pause as I was coming out,” he says. “And then there was a big round of applause. I think, frankly, people realized the enormity of the moment that Apple and Microsoft were partnering on this together.”
Koenigsbauer says it was 18 long months of concentrated work leading up to that moment that had made being onstage possible. And that moment, if nothing else, is clear evidence of Microsoft’s commitment to be a new, truly cross-platform kind of company. With today’s release, Office 2016 is available not just on Windows 10 but nearly all devices. The suite is compatible with iPhones. It’s compatible with iPads. It’s compatible with Android phones and tablets. The Mac versions of Office apps are fully native. And if you subscribe to Office 365, you get an always-up-to-date, fully installed version of the apps wherever you’re using them.
Office is the productivity suite known for getting one big roll-out once every three years, but that rule no longer holds. High-ranking members of Microsoft’s engineering team have told me they are “comfortable” promising that subscribers will see something new and better every month on one of the Office apps. “[Setting the pace] was very deliberate. Like, we were just going to throw down the gauntlet: ‘All right, everybody, go! This is how we’re going to operate.’ Of course, nobody knew how to do this at the beginning,” says Braun. The team first practiced shipping new features internally, and now they say the public should expect to get new updates—fast. “A lot more is coming much faster than you think,” Braun says.
It’s a grand statement, and Microsoft isn’t backing down. But to meet that commitment, Microsoft has had to show a degree of humility. Part of Microsoft’s past year and a half of development of these products meant “partnering externally”—meaning working with what Microsoft used to call competitors—with whom it now needs decent working relationships to make sure Office works on their platforms.
To get the Office 2016 products working in a truly cross-platform way, the engineering team had to do a lot of work on the backend, especially in overhauling something called “shared code.” As Michelle Keslin, another engineer on the Office team explains, the roots of the work began more than two years ago and accelerated sharply as the launch date for Office 2016 drew closer. The team rearchitected the product from the ground up. They got rid of API calls that were specific to particular platforms, identified the chunks of code that spanned the different platforms, and figured out how they could apply that code more generally across the products. Essentially, it was an overhaul of what was underneath the product while keeping the surface familiar.
What is the new Office really like? In that conference room in Redmond, I got an extensive rundown of everything, and I mean everything. But a handful of new features kept surfacing during my interviews, all revolving around four trends: mobile, cloud computing, speed, and collaboration.
Microsoft wants you to know it supports teamwork, so it’s done things like integrate Office 365 Groups into the 2016 Outlook client app. It has an Office 365 Planner app, a kind of modern Gantt chart—or Microsoft’s version of Trello, whichever comparison works better—that helps teams organize and see task assignments, due dates, and update statuses.
But other group features are sure to get more attention. Co-authoring is a big one. It’s a bit of a “me too” feature in that it functions a lot like Google Docs: it allows several users to work on a file together, instead of having one document creator and several editors coming in afterwards. Co-authoring works in Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote, Microsoft’s digital note-taking app that acts a kind of equivalent to Evernote. In Word, co-authoring can even happen in real-time, letting you see other users’ edits as they make them. “We think this could be a hit with writers and editors,” Julia White, a general manager for Office, enthuses as she demonstrates the feature for me. But I can’t help thinking how terrible it would be for my editor to be able see my raw copy—not to mention my typing, deleting, rephrasing, and retyping, in real-time.
If, say, my editor and I end up working in the same file locally on our own systems, Microsoft tracks which version is newer and saves that. If there are any conflicts, the next user who opens the document will see a little pop-up notification that asks her to decide what changes to make. Every edit is saved in the cloud, so the ’90s-era risk of losing your latest draft in a blackout will never happen again, according to Microsoft.
Braun adds that although these days, it seems people prefer Web apps over client programs for their ability to back things up in the cloud, he thinks the Office 2016 team is “about to prove everybody wrong on that.” Braun explains that the Web takes a lot of memory to do the same thing. “It’s really hard to build an application that’s efficient in the Web,” he says. “You can build the experience—but it takes a lot more memory to do the same thing, it’s not as efficient with resources and, honestly, the quality of the experience is not as good.”
White also shows me a slick function that lets you click on the name of a coworker to access video chat, via Skype, from within a Microsoft app—useful for quick questions you need to get answered on the spot. If you’re in the middle of something important, though—say, presenting a PowerPoint for an audience—Microsoft makes sure to disable video.
Some nifty new features take the pain out of the regular, annoying way of doing a routine process; others tack something new onto an old app to enhance it. Something Microsoft calls “modern attachments” automatically brings up the last file you worked on when you make a move to attach something to email instead of having to search for it manually. It also backs up every attachment in Microsoft’s cloud system, OneDrive, so long as you’re working within the Office 2016 ecosystem—that is, using Outlook.
Within Excel, meanwhile, Microsoft has added the ability to make six new charts, including the much-requested waterfall—which Excel nerds managed to hack together manually in the past, after much tedium. Using a feature called “Recommended Charts,” Excel can also look at a set of data and, well, recommend which chart might work best to visualize it. “This is in the spirit of letting Office work for you, versus you doing the work,” says White. “How we make it more powerful, yet easy, easy, easy to use.”
But my favorite feature of all is Excel’s new ability to forecast trends based on historical data, such as sales. Feed the program the information, and it spits out a median prediction, an upper band, and a lower band—and you can choose which scenario suits your projection. If the holiday sales season is coming up, for instance, a manager might decide a more positive outlook is likely in the immediate future. Users can go in and tweak individual elements like confidence intervals. “We demoed this to our sales team a few months ago, and they just stood and clapped,” White says. I can see why.
Microsoft Gets Machine Learning
Count Microsoft among the players in tech making use of machine learning in its everyday tools. Transferring what it has learned from how people search for things in Bing, Microsoft has added a new feature to Office 2016 called Tell Me, which sits on the upper right corner of every app and bears absolutely no resemblance at all to Clippy. The company says Tell Me can lead users to the right Office feature or command with high accuracy—and, White assures me, it will get better in time as Microsoft gathers more data about the kinds of things people input into the search box. Within a document, meanwhile, Office 2016 uses a new feature called Smart Lookup to get context from the words around your search term; know what you mean when you type a thing like “shutter speed”—as in, the camera-related term, not something having to do with window shutters; and show you relevant information from the Web, such as the definition you actually want from Wikipedia.
Caption: The new Office apps use a new feature called Smart Lookup to get context for a term a user is trying to define, using the words around it. Microsoft
Caption: Excel 2016 has introduced six new charts for data, including this Starburst chart. Microsoft
Caption: You can draw and handwrite notes in OneNote 2016. Microsoft
Caption: A brand new app, called Sway, has been added to the Office 2016 portfolio. Microsoft
Caption: Office Delve gives users a view into their productivity. Microsoft
Caption: Office 365 Planner, which lets you see your team’s progress on tasks within the app, is kind of like a Gantt chart—or an alternative to Trello. Microsoft
Caption: Word 2016 now features real-time typing and a new in-app Skype feature available to collaborators. Microsoft
Machine learning is also put to work right inside Outlook 2016, an app that’s helmed by a fairly new addition to the Microsoft team, Javier Soltero, the former CEO and co-founder of the beloved email app Acompli, which was acquired by Microsoft last year. Given enough data, Soltero says the app can learn your habits and figure out which email matters to you the most, bringing it right to the top of your list in a feature called Focused Inbox.
The creation of two brand-new apps shows Microsoft isn’t just introducing updates and copying features that have proven to work—it’s actually come up with a couple of new concepts from scratch.
GigJam, which was actually unveiled earlier this year, is now available, as of today, in private preview, and will roll out as part of Office 365 in 2016. Think of it like an empty canvas that can pull in databases from any of the apps across Microsoft’s ecosystem—email, for one—and almost any SaaS application—like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics CRM—and can link, filter, and redact details from those databases and push pieces of information to workers who, for instance, are part of a supply chain. Microsoft seems to imagine that GigJam users are typically involved in business transactions, like order fulfillment, HR, or procurement, but the tool could conceivably expanded to a host of other applications.
Sway, meanwhile, is what Microsoft describes as a digital storytelling app. It’s not like PowerPoint, or Microsoft Publisher, or Adobe Photoshop, or any other popular app out there. It utilizes an algorithmic design engine that knows—and can apply—the basic tenets of design theory to optimize the “story” you’re trying to tell for any screen, whether you have an iPhone, an Android tablet, or a standard laptop. You start with a topic, and the app can automatically pull in content from copyright-friendly sources such as Wikipedia and Flickr; before you know it, if all goes according to Microsoft’s plan, you have a product worth sharing. Sway was announced last October and was released generally in August, but it hasn’t reached mainstream awareness yet. Its introduction as part of Office 2016, is essentially its big debut.
Sway is kind of a big deal. It’s the first new app—on the order of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and Excel—that’s emerged from Redmond in years. It was incubated inside of a group at Microsoft called Office Labs, and the thought process in conceiving it, according to Chris Pratley, Sway’s product manager and a longtime Microsoft employee, was: “Don’t just change what exists. If you could start from scratch in this decade, what would presenting information, expressing yourself, be like?” In this decade, Pratley says, what’s different is phones, digital consumption, social media, and a baseline expectation on design. Sway, he says, was intended to tap into all of those. “If you imagine award-winning human designers, they’re at the top of this pyramid—and then there’s everybody else,” Pratley says. “That’s a huge gulf. 99.9 percent of humanity sucks at design. Sway’s algorithm just has to be way better than what anyone else can do.”
Hard Habits to Break
Will Microsoft’s big vision for Office succeed? Bret Taylor is founder and CEO of enterprise software company Quip—one of those buzzy productivity apps nipping at Office’s heels—and former Facebook CTO. He thinks that our work habits have fundamentally changed. Nowadays, he says, we rely less on processes like typing out a memo on Microsoft Word and sending that document around in the office. The same thing, Taylor says, can be accomplished simply by emailing the thing. Things like the skeumorphism of an 8 and a half by 11 piece of paper, and typesetting, don’t matter much in today’s work world.
Now, work is driven by apps you can access anytime, apps like Google Docs and Slack and Trello and Evernote. Apps that notify us of tasks by buzzing our phones in our pockets, apps with bots, apps that let us mix fun and work, that allow us to be less formal and more collegial with our coworkers. “The challenge for Office 2016 is: how relevant are many of those products now than they were a decade ago?” Taylor says. “I think there’s a very credible argument that, not because the products are worse, but because people’s habits have changed, they’re not as important as they once were.”
To be sure, lots of people all over the world still use Microsoft Office—employees at slower-moving, old-school workplaces such healthcare or consumer goods giants. And, Taylor acknowledges, the reputation of the new Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella is “universally well-regarded” in the circles he runs in. “You know, startup circles,” Taylor laughs. “I think that’s because when they say the company is changing, it’s not lip service. It’s true.”
But although Microsoft is more agile, and more willing to do things differently than it was before Nadella took over, the changing ways we work are bearing down fast on the company. “The question is,” Taylor muses, “Can Microsoft change themselves faster than the rest of the world changes?”
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