The first glance at the future of Office for Windows is here, in the form of the Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview. It's the initial public iteration of the suite that will be released sometime in the second half of 2015, so at this point it's very much a work in progress.
I've spent a good deal of time with it -- and while there are a few interesting user additions, the bigger improvements so far are under the hood and will be of great interest to businesses.
The preview is available for free to those who have an Office 365 ProPlus subscription, an Office 365 Enterprise E3 plan or an Office 365 Enterprise E4 plan. If you're interested in getting it, go to Microsoft Connect, register and follow the installation instructions.
Given that this is an early preview, don't be surprised if you experience installation woes -- I certainly did. I uninstalled my existing consumer edition of Office 2013 before trying to install the new version, in the hopes that the installation would go smoothly. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
I tried several times to install and, each time, when it seemed that 85% of the installation had been performed, the installation appeared to stop. When I checked the Windows 8 Start screen, I found an icon for the Word 2016 Preview, but not for any other Office apps. Word worked fine, but no other icons for Office applications could be found.
However, after spending a good deal of time with Microsoft tech support, they had me browse through my hard disk to the C:\Windows\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Office\root\Office 16 folder. There I saw that all the Office applications had been installed, even though the icons to run them hadn't. I created shortcuts to them on the taskbar, and I was in business. They all ran without a hitch.
What's new for users
There's very little new compared to Office 2013 in this preview -- no great surprise given that Kirk Koenigsbauer, Microsoft's corporate vice president for the Office 365 client apps and services team, wrote in a blog post, "To be clear, this early build doesn't yet contain all the features we're planning to ship in the final product." And keep in mind that this preview is targeted at IT and developers, not at consumers or other end-users of Office.
The most visible change is that Office applications each now have their own distinctive colors -- blue for Word, green for Excel and red for PowerPoint, with Outlook and Visio lighter shades of blue. The color is most noticeable in the Ribbon across the top of the program windows and in the title bar. You can always go back to the white of the previous version of Office if you want. As for me, there's little enough color in one's daily life, so I find the bright new colors a welcome addition.
The Ribbon is still much the same -- no new tabs and no major changes to existing tabs. However, there is one nice addition that so far is only available on the Ribbon in Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Project and Visio: A box to the far right with the text, "Tell me what you want to do."
Type in a task and you get a list of potential matches. Click any item in the list and you bring up instructions on how to accomplish it. For example, I typed in "Envelope" while in Word and got the options "Create Envelopes" and "Start Mail Merge." I clicked each of the options, and was walked through the process of doing what each said. Simple, clean and useful.
I found this new feature to be a big time saver, and much better than hunting through the Ribbon. And it remembers the features you've previously clicked on in the box, so when you click in it, you first see a list of previous tasks you've searched for. That way, common tasks that you frequently perform are always within easy reach.
Not that it always worked. When I typed in "layout" in Word I got choices for "Change Layout," "Quick Layout," "Insert Shape," "Right Hanging" and "Left Hanging." (These last two have to do with indenting text.) The choices were fine, but all were grayed out so they couldn't be used. Clearly, a little more work needs to be done here.
And it would be nice if this new feature were extended to the rest of Office. Outlook in particular could use it, given the wealth of features it has that aren't always immediately apparent.
I found a smaller addition quite useful as well. In what Microsoft calls the Backstage area (it appears when you click "File" on the Ribbon), when you perform tasks such as opening a file, you see all of the cloud-based services you've connected to your account, such as SharePoint and OneDrive. That isn't new -- the feature was already in the 2013 version of Office. What is new, though, is that each of those locations now shows the associated email address underneath it -- very helpful if you use a cloud service with more than one account. For example, I have two OneDrive accounts, one personal and one for business, and it lets me see at a glance which is which.
Changes to Outlook
The only other noticeable changes are a few Outlook tweaks. For example, when you're composing an email and click Insert -->Attach File, you'll see a list of all the recent files that you've used in Office. Given that there's a reasonable chance that you'll be inserting a file you've been recently working on, I found this a time-saver.
Outlook will also adjust its interface depending on the size of the window in which you run it. It normally has a three-pane view: folders in the left pane, list of emails in the middle pane and the email text in the right pane. However, when you run Outlook in a small window, it now shrinks to either a two-pane view or a one-pane view, depending on the window size.
What's new for IT folks
At this point in Office 2016's development cycle, the most important changes are directed at IT staff.
Perhaps the most important addition -- and perhaps the one that IT will welcome most -- is the extension of data loss protection (DLP) to Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Until now, DLP has been available only in communications-oriented tools, including Exchange, SharePoint, Outlook and OneDrive for Business. With Office 2016, DLP will allow IT administrators to create policies that govern document sharing and content authoring in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. So they'll be able to control what kinds of information different users and different groups can include in the documents they create, and can also limit whom the documents are shared with and where they can be shared.
Outlook gets a number of under-the-hood changes as well, including some that are designed to improve Outlook stability on unreliable networks and others designed to reduce the download time of email. Also included are improvements to Outlook search speed and reliability and an updated MAPI-HTTP protocol that Microsoft claims is more Internet-friendly. Users can now also reduce the amount of storage space Outlook uses by choosing to keep one, three, seven, 14 or 30 days of email on their devices.
Other changes IT will welcome include improved traffic management with the introduction of a new service called Background Intelligence Transfer Service (BITS), which is designed to prevent network congestion. There is also better integration with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) so administrators can more efficiently distribute monthly Office updates, as well as have a way for administrators to control the number and pace of feature updates and bug fixes.
None of that is visible in the preview, of course. But for IT folks, these changes may ultimately be more important than whatever cosmetic and features changes Microsoft eventually makes to the Office interface.
The Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview doesn't look much different from Office 2013. Aside from a new color scheme and relatively minor new features, it's essentially the same on the surface, although there are useful changes that IT staff will welcome.
That doesn't necessarily mean there won't eventually be major additions and revisions, given that this is only the first preview. It does mean, though, that unless you're an IT pro or developer looking to check out the under-the-hood changes, there's little reason to download this preview. You'd be better off to wait for the public preview of the 2016 consumer version, expected to be available in the next several months, if not sooner.