The product feature that received the biggest cheer during this morning's Build 2013 keynote was decent support in Windows 8.1 for multiple monitors. But for my money the most revealing moment was a very brief demonstration of an alpha of PowerPoint for Windows RT — that is, an Office app running entirely in the Modern interface. What was revealing? How little it actually did.
PowerPoint isn't the first Office app to be rolled out in Modern format; OneNote has been available since the release of Windows RT. The OneNote client doesn't offer the same range of features as its desktop equivalent, and it seems PowerPoint (a much more popular product) is proving an even bigger challenge in this department.
CVP for Windows engineering Julie Larson-Green gave the brief demo, which consisted of little more than opening a PowerPoint file and then viewing it. The point she was trying to make was that even a low-powered RT device could effectively show a complex PowerPoint document, complete with animations and embedded video. This is welcome news, but viewing a full-screen document gives us absolutely no idea what the revised interface might be like. The only other interaction we saw was the typical Modern file opening interface (good for touch, a bit crap for keyboard).
It was a brief demonstration in a much broader context, and it would be a mistake to read too much into it. But I think we can conclude that Microsoft is finding it challenging to translate real productivity apps — software that can actually do something rather than consume something — into a touch-friendly environment. The theme of today's event was rapid releases, but if PowerPoint still isn't in a state where Microsoft can show off a single feature beyond file viewing, rapidity seems relative.
Perhaps a better clue to the future of PowerPoint came at the end of the keynote, when Microsoft showed off the touch interface for Project Spark, its game development environment . Like OneNote, this uses wheels to select different options. I imagine we'll see something like that in PowerPoint (and Excel and Word) eventually, though the interface will certainly be cleaner. And just as I can't imagine developing an entire game in a touch environment, we need a lot more innovation before creating (rather than tweaking) PowerPoint decks in a Modern interface will seem plausible.