Despite the lack of an official release date, the next version of Microsoft’s all-conquering productivity suite, Office 2013, is very nearly ready. The upcoming new release, however, will be a lot more than just another update with, as well as a smart new Windows 8 look and new features, a tablet version and an attractively priced cloud-based implementation (Office 365) to tempt users away from the traditional desktop product.

More than a desktop suite


The familiar shrink-wrap editions of office 2013 will still be available but the number of editions has been reduced and prices will be raised by around 10-17%. At the time of writing only US prices were available, with two packages for business users. The cheapest will be Office Home & Business 2013, containing Word, Excel, PowerPoint OneNote and Outlook, priced at $220, plus Office Professional (adding Access and Publisher) at $400, with both licensed for just one computer.

A totally new innovation will be an Office 2013 suite for the Windows 8 RT tablet operating system, albeit something of a cut-down implementation better suited to the capabilities of the ARM processor that powers the platform. A preview version will be pre-loaded when Windows 8 RT tablets appear in October, with the full release expected early in 2013.

Volume licensing in larger companies will continue as before but multi-license SME editions have been dropped. A clear indication that Microsoft would prefer small businesses and consumers alike to stop buying retail editions and switch instead to the online Office 365 service, with price incentives to nudge them in that direction.

Office 365 will deliver online apps to match everything that’s in the Office Professional 2013 box plus SkyDrive storage and other cloud extras. Consumers will be offered Office 365 Home Premium for $100 per year and can share it with five users, while businesses with up to 10 employees are being directed to Office 365 Small Business Premium, priced at $150 per year for a single user license that can be applied across five devices.

Along with the Office Web apps, Small Business Premium subscribers will get a hosted Exchange service with a 25GB inbox per user plus the usual shared contacts, calendars and so on. In addition the host organisation will be assigned 10GB of SharePoint Online storage plus another 500MB per user. Public-facing Web sites can also be hosted on Microsoft servers and Lync Online used to host meetings complete with audio, screen sharing, and HD video.

Also included in all Office 365 subscriptions will be Office on Demand, enabling subscribers to stream applications like Word and Excel for offline use with no installation required.

The same, but better


Given that Office is now a very mature product with a huge user customer base, it comes as no surprise to find a very familiar set of tools in the 2013 suite. Bug fixes have naturally been applied and there are lots of new features, but the huge re-workings of the past couple of releases haven’t been repeated and users familiar with Office 2010 should have little trouble getting to grips with this version.

Apart from SkyDrive registration, installation is much the same as before, even on Windows 8 where a slew of tiles is added to the Start screen to provide access to each of the new apps. On earlier versions of Windows you simply get entries on the Start menu, as before.

Very obvious changes have been made to the user interface, to fit with the Modern Interface GUI (previously known as Metro) being introduced in Windows 8. The layout and spacing of icons, menus and other navigational items has also been altered to enable tablet and other touchscreen users to operate the software using a finger or stylus rather than a mouse. Plus there’s a new clutter-free “Read Mode” available in Word, clearly designed with tablets and smartphones in mind.

Still, it’s not a radical makeover with everything, more or less, where it was before. Plus, contrary to some initial rumours, menu ribbons remain a feature in all the new Office applications. Moreover, workflow and the way in which the applications are used hardly alters, eliminating the need for extensive re-training when upgrading.

Do more online


One major new feature is the ability to both save documents to SkyDrive cloud storage (the default option unless otherwise configured) and collaborate with others online while in an Office document. In Word, for example, a Simple Markup view has been added with comments that can be replied to. You can also add pictures to documents from online photo services, and videos which can be embedded and played inside a Word document.

You can also share documents on your screen, even with users who don’t have Word. Just send them a link and they can see what you’re doing in a browser. Connectors for social networking services have also been added, with another really nice feature in Word the ability to import a PDF, complete with formatting in terms of paragraphs, columns and so on.

And more


Other features include alignment guides and live layout of text and images so that, as you move an image in a Word document, the text will re-flow around it. Excel users get a new fast auto-complete feature called Flash Fill to recognise patterns in data and automatically fill other cells to match. Plus there’s a new quick analysis button for tables which will pop up suggestions for formatting, charting and so on.

PowerPoint users get online co-authoring and improved tools, and in Outlook new site mailboxes for team sharing have been added along with inline replies which can be typed directly into the e-mail being read. Contacts are replaced by People in Outlook with the option of connecting to LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking services and consolidating data onto a single People Card.

And there’s a lot more besides much of which you can check out for yourself using the Office 2013 Preview. Everything you need to evaluate the product can be found here and it’s more or less complete, although other features may be added and changes made before the final release?whenever that might be.