What Office 2013 will mean for your business

The latest version of Office, ‘is it worth the upgrade costs?’

By Mary Branscombe 

Whenever a new version of Office comes out, the first question most businesses ask is, ‘Should I upgrade? – Are the new features worth it, given the cost and the disruption of installing a new version of Office?’ Office 2013 certainly means disruption, with a new interface designed to fit in with the flat, digital-first look of Windows 8 and Metro, and the new features across the range of programs, while certainly useful, may not on their own add up to a good reason to upgrade.

But there’s one thing about Office 2013 that changes the usual calculation and means it’s not just the productivity benefits of the new functionality, versus the disruption and cost of an upgrade that you need to think about.

Office 2013 offers greater flexibility on licences

Office 2013 takes the idea of Office 365 – making Office servers like Exchange and SharePoint available as a Microsoft-hosted service in the cloud – to the logical extreme.

You can buy Office 2013 as a subscription; however it’s not just licences and a place to download the installer online – which is an option with several of the current Office 365 plans.

The new license options are different from any previous versions. You can run Office 2013 on up to five PCs (or Macs) per person – which means it’s easier to buy Office for a business that mixes Macs and PCs – additionally the licence also gives you access to Office client apps on your mobile devices. You are currently limited to OneNote and Lync rather than Office for iPad, but if further Office apps appear for your phone and tablet, then they will be included in the subscription.

The licence is also much more flexible than in the past, the new cloud installer allows an Office on demand solution.

Select Office 2013 using the new on demand feature
Select Office 2013 using the new on demand feature

It’s fast enough that if you end up borrowing a PC that doesn’t already have Office, you can stream Office 2013 onto it in a few minutes – complete with your settings and recent document links ready to start work (as long as those documents are in the cloud, of course). That includes things buttons you’ve put on the quick access toolbar and your custom dictionary, so a new install of Office feels like one you’ve spent weeks tweaking. However, it doesn’t cover nearly enough of the settings in Office; no Outlook signatures for example (which is odd when they already sync from PC to PC with the Windows Live Essentials tools).

Additionally the flexibility allows businesses to give employees the rights to Office and then revoke it at a later date, should they need to. So an employee can have the full version of Office on their own PC so they’re never stuck because they can’t open a key document, but they don’t get to keep the Office licence you’ve paid for when they leave just because it’s already installed.

A version of Office that’s not tied to Windows

This works well because you’re not installing Office 2013 like a traditional desktop app. It’s more like the Office trial versions you can install from the Web; it uses Microsoft’s App-V application virtualisation system to give you a version of Office that’s not tied directly to Windows. That means it’s easier to replace files – like the .QAT files for each Office application that store the list of icons you want on the Quick Access Toolbar – without updating the whole Office installation.

The latest version of App-V removes some of the confusing things about the tool; there’s no longer a virtual Q drive showing up in Explorer to confuse users. And just because Office is virtualised by App-V it doesn’t mean you need to be online to use it; the Office 2013 apps work like any other Windows desktop app, when you’re not connected. This just speeds up deployment and prevents compatibility problems.

Install multiple versions of Office on one PC

Because the applications are isolated and virtualised, they don’t interfere with each other so you can have multiple versions of Office installed side by side on the same PC including (for the first time), different versions of Outlook on the same PC. You can’t run two different versions of the same application at once, but you could have the 2010 versions of Publisher and Access installed and working alongside 2013 versions of Word and Outlook

Mix and match the apps you want with Office 2013
Mix and match the apps you want with Office 2013

Assuming the price is right, it sounds like a no brainer; no more having to fork out all over again to get a new version that adds the one feature you’ve been wishing for (or fixes the one infuriating bug). And when it’s that easy to install Office and update settings, moving to the next version of Office after Office 2013 will be equally painless. That will encourage Microsoft to update Office more often; Office general manager Chris Pratley told TechRadar that subscription versions of Office 2013 will get refreshed more often than the current annual cycle of improvements to Office on Windows Phone, for example.

Subscription versions of Office 2013 will get refreshed more often than the current annual cycle of improvements to Office on Windows Phone, for example. Chris Pratley, Office General Manager, Microsoft.

Office 2013 a cloud and PC combination

There’s another equally major change to the way you buy Office. It’s not just cloud connected; it’s sold as a combination cloud and PC service. With one of the four Office 365 plans, whether you’re a one-man band, a small company or a large enterprise, you get a new way of buying and deploying Office that automatically keeps you up to date, across multiple PCs and other devices, and adds cloud sync for documents and settings.

Microsoft has been saying for years that Office isn’t just the familiar desktop applications; it’s a family of applications plus servers that enable extra features in the applications, so running Office on the desktop without the Office servers means you miss out. Get Office 2013 through Office 365 and you get the servers as well. Unless you chose the Office 365 Home Premium plan – which is intended for consumers and comes with 20GB of document storage on SkyDrive – buying an Office 365 subscription to Office 2013 also gets you Office 365 accounts with the Exchange, SharePoint and Lync services.

You get the latest version of Exchange, which gives you 25GB of mailbox storage per user, Forefront anti-virus and spam filtering, shared calendars, out of office messages, mail tips that warn you before you send the message that the person you’re writing to is away on holiday, or that you’re forwarding a document that a specific company policy applies to, access to email on smartphones and basic mobile device management including remote wipe. You can force users to set and change strong passwords on their mobile devices if they want to receive email. Set filters to stop sensitive data like customer credit card numbers being sent in email with the new Data Loss Prevention features.

You get all this without having to deal with the setup and day-to-day administration of an Exchange server. Depending on the plan you choose, you either get a simple interface to Exchange or the full Web interface for managing Exchange, including PowerShell. But because it’s all running in a Microsoft data centre, all you really need to do is set up the user accounts and start sending email and creating appointments.

SharePoint gets a 2013 update

Office 365 includes SharePoint, which combines basic business social networking with searchable, shared document libraries and remote access – and gives you access to the Office Web Apps without having to put business documents onto SkyDrive.

SharePoint 2013 works more like the cloud services users are familiar with; although users can still work document libraries in SharePoint directly, the SkyDrive Pro tools lets them create a desktop folder that syncs with SharePoint so they can share files and access them when they’re not in the office, without changing the way they work – or putting confidential business documents on consumer cloud services. You can even use SharePoint to build your company Web site.

Lync 2013 goes cloud with Office 365

Microsoft’s Lync communications package also gets a cloud-upgrade for the instant messaging, online meetings and video conferencing services, however the version of Lync included in Office 365 doesn’t include a full cloud-friendly unified communications system. If you want this you need to use a telephone supplier like BT that specifically supports it (and charges you extra).

The Lync client for Office 365 lets you have a video conference with multiple people, all using HD video, and you can use Lync to connect to people who are using Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and even Google Talk. Lync also lights up the ‘presence’ indicators in Office apps like Outlook and Word. If you want to talk to the person who put a comment in your Word document to get more information, Lync lets you see if they’re online and start a conversation right from the comment.

If you want to talk to the person who put a comment in your Word document to get more information, Lync lets you see if they’re online and start a conversation right from the comment.

If you don’t want to switch to Exchange Online for your email server, you can still buy Office 2013 as boxed software (or a standalone download), but you don’t get the benefits of the subscription.

Office 365 is an excellent service and it may be exactly the right thing for you, especially for a small business. It’s certainly the simplest and cheapest way to get the latest version of the Office servers and to unlock all the features in the Office desktop applications. SharePoint and Lync are excellent tools and Exchange is pretty much the definitive mail server. But it does mean that moving to Office 2013 is a more complicated decision to make and may involve a more complex migration depending on what systems you already have.

Taking the fight to Google

If you’re comparing Office to Google’s offerings, it’s Office 365 that competes with Google Apps – and in many cases wins. The Office 365 management interface is clear and easy to navigate compared to the cluttered, confusingly organised and ad-heavy Google Apps admin page.

Office 365 has clearer options for sharing administrative responsibilities; you can let someone manage user accounts and passwords without giving them full admin access, and without having to set up a custom administrative profile. Additionally if you already have Active Directory and want to reuse the users and groups you have there, then this is far easier in Office 365 than in Google Apps, which has no equivalent of AD groups.

Support in Google Apps doesn’t match the 24-7 phone support of Office 365; phone support is only available if the problem is with Google Apps Web services (not, say, mobile email) and affecting more than half your users.

Outlook 2013 links contacts automatically
Outlook 2013 links contacts automatically

On the other hand administering mail in Google Apps is simpler than tweaking Exchange settings. With Google Apps there are fewer email options to set and the Postini spam filtering is excellent (it can take Office 365 a couple of weeks of learning to filter the same amount of spam).

In many cases, Google’s tools are simpler but the Office 365 options are more powerful; Google Chat gives you the same presence information for contacts in Gmail as Lync does in Outlook, but Lync has far more options for federating with other services.

Gmail and Google Docs are familiar to many users and predate the Office Web apps by several years; however they don’t keep the fine detail of document layout from Office file formats, but that doesn’t always matter for online documents. The new offline support and Google Drive syncing have limitations; you can only work offline in the latest version of Chrome, you can’t open presentations or PDFs files offline at all or create meetings offline, and the files that sync are the Google Docs versions, not your original Office documents.

Google Docs still has only a fraction of the features in desktop Office and with the new Office 2013 interface, it’s hard to argue that Office is confusing or hard to use for all its power.

What you’ll buy Office 2013 for

Unless you’re planning to equip all your employees with touchscreen PCs as soon as Windows 8 comes out, the touch-friendly interface in Office 2013 won’t be the most important feature. However the clean new Metro-inspired look will be one reason to move. It makes features easy to find and makes more room for your documents on screen (except for the occasional place where tools like the spell checker take up an unreasonable amount of screen space). Outlook takes particularly good advantage of the Metro interface, with inline replies, Windows Phone-style unified contact views and previews of information in your calendar and address book.

Outlook's new people view in Office 2013
Outlook’s new people view in Office 2013

Word’s new ‘Read Mode’ for reading documents so they look like reflowing web pages or the ability to open a PDF file as an editable document, complete with complex page structures like tables, and a complete overhaul of the document review and comment tools help turn a word processor into a universal document viewer and editor, that handles a lot more than words.

Word documents rarely end up on paper anymore, so there’s no need to restrict them to what you can print out. That’s why as well as making it easy to insert images from online services like Flickr, SkyDrive and Web searches, Word now lets you insert online videos with an updated version of the tool first featured in PowerPoint 2010.

PowerPoint gets more graphics tools and easier to use layout options, background audio and an improved presenter view that should make presentations better for the audience as well.

Share and present Word documents over the web

Word also gets its own equivalent of the PowerPoint Broadcast tool; share a presentation or a Word document and colleagues or customers can follow along in their browser. As you switch slides or scroll through the document, what they see on screen changes to match, and they can download the document at the end of the session. This isn’t for collaborating on documents, it’s for giving presentations or sharing information and it’s a lot simpler than setting up a web meeting or conference call; just choose the Present Online option from the Share section of the File menu and you get a link to email out to people.

Excel 2013 gets a new intelligent-fill tool

It’s hard to decide whether the suggestions of the right chart to use, or how to explore your data in a Pivot Table, are more useful than Excel’s flash fill tool. The new tool applies machine learning to extracting patterns of information out of badly formatted data – ideal for dealing with data cut from PDFs and web pages. Both help open up the power of Excel to users who aren’t experts. It will also be interesting to see if the market for custom add-ons written using web tools makes it easier to pull big data into Excel and get visualisation like maps out.

Between the new interface and tools that suggest what analysis features to use, the power of Excel is a lot more approachable.
Between the new interface and tools that suggest what analysis features to use, the power of Excel is a lot more approachable

The continued improvements for viewing information in OneNote – like live previews of Excel and Visio data – make the desktop software even more useful as a note-taking tool that supports collaboration effortlessly (almost every business will find shared notebooks a hugely powerful way of sharing a wide range of information). But the Metro-style OneNote for Windows 8 app is also interesting, because it raises the bar significantly, on what we expect from Metro apps.

OneNote for Windows 8 proves that Metro can deliver powerful apps, not just eye candy.
OneNote for Windows 8 proves that Metro can deliver powerful apps, not just eye candy.

There are fewer new features in Access and Publisher, but both take good advantage of the Metro interface. Access can create Metro-style Web apps for common business needs like task management and issue tracking. If you’re ready to jump into the Windows 8 way of doing things, this could be a handy shortcut.

Project 2013 helps businesses see the big picture

Project 2013 is available as standard boxed software or as an Office 365 subscription in versions for project management (Project Pro) and for project portfolio management (Project Online, with or without Project Pro).

Managing multiple projects as a portfolio is common sense really – multiple projects can put demands on the same areas of the business than you wouldn’t spot by looking at projects individually so you have to look at the big picture. Project 2013 brings this increasingly important tool to smaller businesses for whom most portfolio project management tools are too complex and too expensive.

Visio 2013 allows dynamic chart updates

Visio 2013 combines new tools for creating and editing shapes and org charts with much better use of dynamic data. You can link a diagram to information from Excel, SharePoint, SQL Server and SQL Azure, use a wizard to have formatting and data graphics update to match the underlying data (put a red traffic light on a router that’s overloaded or a green tick on a business process that’s running smoothly) and then save those to Office 365 or SharePoint to use as dashboards.

Both Visio and Project 2013 make it easier to share diagrams and projects with other people, even if they don’t have the software installed, with viewers that work in virtually any browser, including on smartphones.

You can also use Visio to map out the workflow for projects you’re managing in Project 2013, and then let employees start conversations in Lync from within a project. This is Office applications working more intelligently together than they have in the past, so having more Office tools gives you more power, rather than too many places to look for things.

Office hasn’t always delivered on its ‘better together’ promise; as well as the improved features in Office 2013 apps, having the Office servers (through Office 365) makes it much more likely that even small businesses will really get value from what they pay for Office.

The moderate number of improved features in the individual apps may put some businesses off moving to Office 2013, but getting away from the current 2 or 3 year replacement cycle, where businesses lose out on new features by delaying upgrades and losing time to complex deployments may prove a major advantage for many businesses, and hence makes the new version of Office one that’s well worth considering.





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