What Should Microsoft Do With Office 2012?

Rumour has it that the next release of Microsoft's Office suite, Office 2012, will make its first public beta appearance in late January. A radical interface redesign is on the cards, but what else does Microsoft need to do to remain dominant in the office suits space?

Picture by Alan Davidson/Getty Images

Most of the rumours so far surrounding Office 2012 (or Office 15 if you're counting version numbers) have concerned the work on developing a Metro-style interface, mimicking the look of Windows 8. One of the chief reasons for using the Metro interface is to make Office more functional in touch environments, such as tablets and touch-screen PCs.

The reaction to that change so far in the early developer builds of Windows 8 has been pretty positive. However, it's worth remembering that one of Microsoft's most consistent positions around Metro is that it isn't designed to totally replace the existing interface. Rather, users should have a choice based on the kind of tasks they want to perform. This is particularly relevant when it comes to productivity apps. If you're in consumption mode — reading email or reviewing a presentation — then touch can make life easier. But once you get into production mode — typing data into a spreadsheet or writing a novel — then there's still no real substitute for a keyboard and a mouse.

That distinction has been reflected in the leaked screenshots of early Office builds that have popped up on various blogs. While the interface for Office looks flatter, for instance, the Ribbon hasn't disappeared. Since it first appeared in Office 2007, the Ribbon has been controversial, and there are still plenty of people running earlier versions of Office where it doesn't appear. But the spread of the Ribbon into standard Windows apps like Paint proves that it's not disappearing, and the fact that it still seems to be part of the Office look confirms that trend.

One of the ongoing challenges for Microsoft with Office is convincing businesses to upgrade from older versions. If you're not creating complex documents, then virtually any version from 95 on can do what you need. (It's also worth pointing out that even Office 95 can also do a lot more than most online document editors, but that's another story.)

Office is a huge cash cow for Microsoft, but that hasn't stopped it tweaking its pricing approach. As we noted on the weekend, the Starter edition of Office is available for downloading, meaning almost anyone can get basic features of Office for free. The same is also true of the browser-based Office Web apps versions, though those too are cut down versions.

In a recent analysis of the market, research firm Gartner suggests that the biggest advantage Microsoft enjoys isn't the interface of Office, but the near-universal use of its file formats. "Compatibility continues to trump price, and if Microsoft navigates upcoming market changes well, it will continue to dominate the market throughout the decade," analysts Michael Silver and Tom Austin wrote. Google will provide the most obvious competition, but even by 2015 Gartner says its share of the total office productivity market will be "slim". Again, compatibility is the key issue:

Although Google Docs adds new features every two weeks or so, its compatibility with Microsoft Office is insufficient for moderately complex documents or those that need to be shared for editing with users running Microsoft Office.

Silver and Austin also point out that while there was a widespread expectation that browser-based products would provide major competition to desktop apps, attention is now shifting to implementation on mobile devices. Ultimately, HTML5 might provide a means of delivering those options in all three environments, but that clearly isn't going to happen in a hurry.

What changes would you like to see in the next version of Office? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.


Comments

    What should Microsoft do with Office 2012? Not change the bloody interface again for one! I'm finally getting as productive with the Ribbon as I used to be with the old menus - to change the paradigm once again (as appealing as Metro is in the Win8 Preview I've tried) is just asking for people to ignore it.

    They should fix Outlook's HTML. http://fixoutlook.org/

      Seconded

    Changing the interface too much would be a mistake. A flatter-looking ribbon isn't a bad idea - 2000-2003 was a nice UI refresh without changing too much.
    It would be nice to have even more seamless combination of Office 2012, Office Live, SkyDrive and Mesh. So when saving a document, a tick-box flags it as "meshed" which means a copy is automatically saved into your Mesh folder, can be edited online like any other SkyDrive document and when opened up again is checked against the Mesh file for any changes.

    If they release a touch version of their office suite products, they shoudl just make it a very basic cut down version of the products that way you do not have to worry about pressing buttons along teh ribbon. Quickly type up something, make changes etc etc.

    Unrelated picture is unrelated.

      Nah, Gatesy's showing the size of his erection

        unfortunately it's subject to the same laws as windows progress bars.

        4 inches... 10 inches... 8 feet... 3 inches...

    Bill Gates (pictured) has little to do with Office 2012. How about a nice picture of Jensen Harris?

    Better support for multi-monitor setups in Excel. Also, I'd like to be able to create workspaces within Excel so that I can have two worksheets on a single tab. This would allow me to have a large sheet of source data on one tab/worksheet and a selection of pivot tables on the other.

    "Introducing our office suit of apocalyptic proportions...!"

    What should they do with it? Price it so more people can use it. Many people like me just buy Word and Excel then use Open/Libre Office for the rest. Buying the whole suite for occasional use is a waste of money. If the whole suite was say $300 thereabouts, i would buy it. Otherwise, LibreOffice slowly gathers more users...

    I think they need to drastically improve Word's handling of long documents. I am writing a thesis that will end up at about 300 pages. Word is totally unreliable with documents that length. It is currently 100 pages and it is already struggling.

    I know that most people don't need to write documents this length but 100 pages isn't totally absurd in lots of use cases. This is the thing that drives most of the people I know away from Word.

      If you're writing a thesis, wouldn't you use something like LaTeX instead of Word? WYSIWYG editors like Word are great for what they do, but they're designed for relatively small jobs like letters, resumes, reports, contracts and other small desktop publishing tasks. LaTeX is (AFAIK) much more useful for typesetting and just getting the job done.

      www.latex-project.org/

    Ground up redesign of Word to fix the debacle that is templates and styles. Design it around how most businesses *actually use* Word to write letters and reports and documents as consistently formatted products with a small number of limited styles which don't change, break or go apesh*t every five lines.

    Ditch the ancient idea that line feeds are characters that can be deleted; we're not in ASCII land any more.

    Sort the mess that is section breaks and how deleting one force formats the previous section. Ditto line feeds.

    Quit thinking that any time I change a character, it's a new style that has to be added to the enormous list.

    If I paste from another document, please don't import 3 dozen new styles.

    Quit cluttering up the style list with styles that don't exist.

    Etc. etc. etc.

    I'm hoping for a dual version to run on Win8.
    A simple 'lite' screen using the new Metro look with minimal menu for the basics and then a more involved version that gives all options and access to the full ribbon (with a quick switch between as they have with IE)

    FIX WORD! I'm sick of formatting documents and fixing the hot messes people create when 50 different people edit one document.

    That said, we finally got Office 2010 at work and I'm still on an XP computer.. so... either way I won't be seeing anything good till who knows when..

    Put it on a diet before releasing it, for Chrissakes! - or give us something modular.
    Half my life is spent cozying up with a word processor. I want Princess Leia - not Jabba the Hutt.

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