One nice touch: Office 365 will greet you with a "welcome back" message, inviting you to pick up where you left off working, and taking you right back to the section of the document you were working on when you last signed off. Microsoft sees this as a way of accommodating a variety of scenarios where you start a document at work, then finish it at home, or start it on your PC and finish it on your tablet.
Collaboration also becomes a more integral part of working in Office. For example, if you've been collaborating on a document with several other employees, Word will display presence information for your collaborators, allowing you to see if one or both would be available to answer a question--and if so, allow you to launch a Lync chat or a PC-to-PC call. Multiple tools in the suite now include a common "people card" pop-up screen that shows profile, contact, and presence information.
Even the process of marking up a document with comments has become more social, supporting threaded discussions that can be displayed in the margin.
"The improvement in the integration is really the key there," said Bryan Garcia, chief technology officer of Equifax, one of the customers who was on hand for the launch event. Having synchronous communication capabilities available from within a document, rather than having to switch to the Lync app to see who is online, will make communication flow more smoothly, he said. Meanwhile, Equifax is just starting to plan the introduction of enterprise social networking based on the improved social functionality of SharePoint.
As a credit reporting firm operating in a regulated industry, Equifax has resisted the bring your own device trend in the workplace, ruling out devices like the iPad, Garcia said. That's why he is pleased to see Microsoft introducing a compelling tablet experience that includes Office. "An iPad for a consumer may be attractive, but what this allows me to do is say we can give the user a great usability experience and all the security and monitoring and controls we need can be there, too," Garcia said. He has been working with one of a Samsung tablet running Windows 8 and Office, which he believes delivers "an experience equal to or better than the iPad."
As popular as Apple's tablet is, in an enterprise setting "if an iPad can't have the full Office experience and can't have Lync, then it really is a hampered device," he said.
Douglas Besse, CIO of Creation Technologies, had a similar take. The new Office offers "seamless integration, going from app to app" in a way that "promises to improve productivity," Besse said. "I think the seamless nature of the interface is going to help us with training and support."
Creation Technologies is a contract electronics manufacturer with operations in 14 locations around the world, so collaboration features like being able to see who is available for a quick chat or to carry on running discussions over SharePoint are valuable, Besse said. "We lose so much productivity because of timezone issues" and other coordination challenges, he said.
Besse also sees in the newly improved Windows phones and tablets an opportunity to solve some "cross platform" challenges--potentially by making sure that more of those platforms are running Windows and Office.
Microsoft also had several consumer and small business testers of the product on hand to tell their stories. As head of a non-profit that teaches children healthy living skills, Sajai Foundation CEO Melissa Hanson said she had experimented with using SkyDrive in the past but found it awkward. "Now because it's by default, you always go there," she said. That came in handy the other day when she was traveling and trying to work remotely with an employee putting together the foundation's newsletter. Because the document she needed was in SkyDrive, she was able to retrieve it and share it easily.
The only thing she hasn't been able to do while the new Office was under wraps (and she was the only one in her organization with access) is really use it for more active collaboration. While she only has three employees, she also has board members who are all over the country. "This can be a way to link us all virtually and avoid flying them in," Hanson said.
Every company needs a social networking policy, but don't stifle creativity and productivity with too much formality. Also in the debut, all-digital Social Media For Grownups issue of The BrainYard: The proper tools help in setting social networking policy for your company and ensure that you'll be able to follow through. (Free with registration.)