I'm writing this in Microsoft Word 2013--comfortably and safely behind a keyboard and mouse. But it's my hunch that if it was up to Microsoft I'd be tapping my way through this assignment instead of clicking and clacking.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the latest version of the company's flagship app suite on Monday at a press conference in San Francisco. Office 2013 is "the most ambitious release of Microsoft Office that we've ever done," Ballmer said. "We transformed in this process Office to embrace some of the same design concepts and principles that we showed you in Windows 8."
[ For more on Microsoft's new Office suite and what IT pros have to say about it, see Microsoft Office 2013 Built For Social Sharing. ]
Many of those concepts and principles embrace touch. The new Office features numerous changes to make it work on tablets and eventually phones--computing form factors that are fast replacing PCs and laptops as devices of choice for millions of users. Word 2013 on a touchscreen, for instance, brings up a virtual keyboard if the user taps the screen anywhere in the main document. It also responds to a variety of swipes and gestures for opening and closing files, and the like.
Office 2013 also works with Windows 8's Snap feature, which lets users run a conventional application, like Word, side by side with a Metro app. The 2013 versions of other Office apps, including Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, are similarly touch-enabled. OneNote also takes stylus input.
All this touchiness doesn't penalize mouse and keyboard luddites like me, though Office 2013 apps do show some interface changes that may take some getting used to. Word docs have almost no chrome at the borders--a fact that had me missing the file edge and clicking on the desktop a few times, inadvertently triggering Snap. But it's nothing that should throw users into a tizzy. "It's less of a change than from Office 2007 to 2010," Gartner analyst Michael Silver contends.
The real question is whether apps like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint really need, or benefit from, touch. Is touch enough of a selling point to get businesses running Office 2010 or older versions to shell out however many hundreds of dollars Microsoft may charge for Office 2013? Redmond has not released pricing details, but consider this: Office 2010 Professional retails for $350--and there's no discounted upgrade path from Office 2007.
Google Apps, which starts at $5 per user, per month, is meanwhile becoming a legitimate alternative for many businesses that just need the basics.
There's no question that some types of apps are better with touch. But those are mostly single-purpose, "app" apps for tasks like checking the weather and stock quotes, or finding a movie theater. But Office, even in its newest incarnation, is still an old-school suite of applications. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint were built for complex content creation and authoring tasks. The extent to which it will be practical or even physically tolerable for users to interact with them via touch is questionable.
"We'll have to wait and see if a product that's designed for the Windows desktop and keyboard will work well with touch," Gartner's Silver told me. "A keyboard is an integral part of creation in Word and Excel."
Of course, Microsoft says there's a lot more to Office 2013 than touch. The company touts the suite's close integration with cloud services like SkyDrive, which stores files and settings so they'll be instantly accessible from whatever device a user accesses their Office account. Close a file in Word 2013 and you're automatically prompted to save to SkyDrive (you can also choose to save locally).
The cloud option should prove popular with business users, who might want a tablet on the road without foregoing access to their desktop environment and files. Consumers who use only one device may find it less useful--but again, there's no real penalty to the cloud features. They're mostly just there, albeit a bit in your face. One annoying aspect of Microsoft's transformation of Office into an online service is that it acts like one. I had to sign into my Microsoft account to download the Office 2013 Customer Preview, again to install it, again after installation, and once more prior to first use. With such obnoxious authentication demands, it had better be secure.
Ultimately, Microsoft's approach to Office 2013 is the same as its approach to Windows 8. You want touch and cloud? No problem. Prefer to work locally on the classic desktop? That's fine too. These options are all to the good, notwithstanding some potential for initial confusion.
Again though, the question in Office's case is whether users, including enterprises, will care enough about these options to shell out big bucks for the software. Office accounts for about a third of Microsoft's revenue. If buyers think touch adds little value to word processing and spreadsheet and presentation creation, then Office 2013 sales could be touch and go.