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Office 2016 arrives with features meant to take on Google (and everyone else)

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Office 2016 is out of preview today, and in a sentence, it represents Microsoft's most obvious effort yet to catch up with Google Drive. Though the new release looks generally the same as the last version, it's designed for sharing and collaboration in a way that Office 2013 really wasn't. In particular, Office 2016 introduces real-time co-authoring (a feature already available in the web version of Office), along with the ability to attach OneDrive files to emails in Outlook. In addition to Google, though, the new software takes aim at various other tools businesses might be using, including Slack (for chatting) and Trello (for to-do lists and task management). You might even be able to avoid the browser sometimes, thanks to built-in Bing search results. Microsoft's goal with Office 2016, then, wasn't just to match what Google Docs can do, but to ensure business users in particular barely need to leave the app.

Gallery: Office 2016 screenshots | 16 Photos

It's all about collaboration

That flat Ribbon, that launch screen full of thumbnails -- you've seen it all before. With a few exceptions, Office 2016 looks identical to the version that came before it, although each app now has a colorful header instead of a white one (think: blue for Word and green for Excel). Microsoft actually already does that with the Office for iPad app, so you could say even this tweak isn't really new; the company's just doing some tune-up to make sure its apps look consistent across different platforms.

That dash of color aside, all the visual changes here were meant to make room for new features and functionality. Take a look at the upper-right corner in Word, Excel or PowerPoint, for instance, and you'll see a new Share button. Click that, and you'll open a panel from which you can share documents by entering an email address. (By default, you can share with whomever you want, although IT departments will have the ability to make it so that you can only share with people inside your organization.) From this pane, you can also see a list of each person who has access to the document, with notes like "editing" or "can edit" to help clarify who's currently in the doc.

Speaking of the sort, Office 2016 adds real-time co-authoring, a feature that's been offered in the browser version for almost two years now. The way it's implemented, you can see where your colleagues are in the document and see their edits as they make them, similar to how Google Drive works. This is a big improvement over Office 2013, whose few collaboration features were clearly an afterthought -- at best, it would lock up whole paragraphs while someone else was editing. Needless to say, it's about time.

In addition to making it easier for folks to edit a document at the same time, Microsoft made another obvious, overdue move: It built in Skype so that you can send IMs and place calls from within Office apps. Notably, too, you don't need a Skype for Business account to use this feature; even an individual consumer account will do.

That said, for business users (the people this is really aimed at, anyway), having in-line Skype conversations could in theory eliminate the need for other chat apps, like Slack. Ya know, because having one fewer open window is always a good thing. Then again, this Skype integration probably makes the most sense for businesses that were already using Skype. I'm sure there are plenty of them, too, but that's still a big "if." At Engadget's parent company, for instance, the entire organization uses Slack, which means it doesn't come out of Engadget's budget, specifically. That alone would make paying for Skype for Business a tough sell for us, however cool we find the Office 2016 integration. Basically, then, this new feature is a nice time- and space-saver for companies that already subscribe to Skype, but it won't necessarily be reason enough to get new ones on board.

Cortana, search and a replacement for Clippy

If collaboration is the biggest theme in Office 2016, then "improved search" is surely the runner-up. As the first version of Office built for Windows 10, Office 2016 was designed to work closely with Cortana, Microsoft's ubiquitous personal assistant. That means you can say to her things like, "Show me my schedule for the day," and she'll read you a list of your meetings, pulled directly from your Outlook calendar.

Meanwhile, the various Office apps themselves bring improved built-in search, including a feature called Smart Lookup that allows you to perform web searches from inside Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, without having to launch your browser. Well, if you don't need more than a quick reference, anyway. While playing around in Word, for instance, I did a search for carbon nanotubes, which brought up a mix of webpage previews from sites like Wikipedia, as well as thumbnails from Bing image search. If all I needed was a quick word definition or a little extra context on a topic with which I was unfamiliar, this inline search would have sufficed. As soon as you click on anything, though, whether it be an article link or an image from Bing, you'll be taken straight to a new browser tab. In general, the new Office keeps you from having to use some other tools, but I suspect the browser will still be in heavy rotation in most people's workflows.

Even navigating the Office apps themselves is now easier. Thanks to a new feature called Tell Me, you can use a search bar in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to -- wait for it -- tell the app what it is you want to do. (You can also use the Alt-Q command if you're into keyboard shortcuts.) So, when I type in "Sunburst" (the name of a new chart type in Excel), the app will give me the option of selecting from the two most relevant hierarchy charts, with Sunburst being one of them ("Treemap" is the other). I can not only add a chart from the Tell Me box, but also move my cursor over the different chart options listed and see my data transform in real time. All told, then, I was able to bypass the help tool, as well as save time digging through menus in the Ribbon. In that sense, Tell Me feels like the closest thing we have to a replacement for good ol' Clippy -- just less annoying.

Outlook

Outlook has perhaps received more improvements in 2016 than any of the other Office apps. First off, continuing with the whole collaboration theme, Office 365 Groups are now built into Outlook, so you can see your shared inbox, calendar, notebook and OneDrive inline. Additionally, the live search feature is now faster, allowing you to whittle down your inbox. You can also attach recently used documents to emails, and that includes both locally stored items and files that live in the cloud. If you attach something from OneDrive, Outlook will attach a browser link and automatically grant permissions to that person. Basically, it works the same way as Gmail, when you want to share Google Drive files.

Moving on, Microsoft also added a feature called Clutter that, over time, learns your habits, observes which mail you read and which you ignore and eventually starts putting your low-priority mail in a separate folder. The one thing you need to watch out for here is that Clutter doesn't draw attention to itself in any way, meaning it's not going to give you an occasional pop-up saying "you have 20 emails in Clutter waiting to be read." You'll have to remember to check it, as you would a spam folder. Also, Clutter is enabled by default, although you can turn it off if you like. For both these reasons, then, I think I prefer the "Sweep" feature in Hotmail, where you can set up rules for what gets shoved aside, and what happens to it. That approach is more passive, but also grants me more control.

Excel

Excel also received a few minor updates. And I do mean minor. All we really have here are six new chart types, including "Waterfall" (financial); "Pareto" (statistical); "Treemap" (hierarchical); Histogram; "Box and Whisker" (data distribution with range, quartiles and outliers); and "Sunburst" (hierarchical, shown above). The Tell Me feature works here too, so that you can enter the name of a chart and see the data instantly reshape itself onscreen to fit whatever new chart type you selected.

Planner and Delve

While Office 2016 largely brings updates to existing apps like Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, it also ushers in some new tools that simply didn't exist in the last release. That would include Office 365 Planner, a browser-based tool that attempts to do basically the same thing as Trello or Asana: namely, task- and milestone-based management to make sure projects get done on time. In the dashboard, pictured above, you can view "buckets" (tasks) or instead search by a particular person on your team, to get an overview of everything you're working on. From there, you can see how many days are left before a deadline, with a color-coded breakdown of what's completed, late, in progress or not started yet.

It's that last part that's particularly compelling to me. Something like Trello already lets you filter cards so that you can see what just one person is working on. But what if it's a collaborative effort, with multiple people depending on each other to get stuff done on time? In situations like that, Planner would seem to have a leg up; it's easier to understand at a glance where the bottleneck is.

Also new in Office 2016 is Delve, which sounds a little like Planner in that it, too, shows a glimpse of what different people in an organization are working on. That said, the app's Pinterest-style design makes it better-suited for less urgent things like brainstorming, or just generally being aware of what your colleagues are working on. Over time, too, the app will start surfacing articles and other things that might be of interest to you -- yep, also kinda like Pinterest. Interestingly, though, Delve doesn't currently share data from the Edge browser to learn about what you're interested in. Not that you'd necessarily want that, but I suspect your browser knows more about what you like and don't like than just about any other app you may have installed.

Sway

You may have already read about Sway, a newish Microsoft app that allows you to create presentations designed to look good in the browser and across different devices, with support for touch, embedded video, et cetera. In a way, if you look at the finished product, it's kind of like creating a responsive webpage, except that you don't get to customize the URL (the best you can do is upload it to Docs -- kind of a YouTube for documents -- and that can have a custom address). In any case, Sway is already out of preview and hasn't seen any changes in the final Office 2016 release. Still, it's worth recapping what it does, and mentioning that it is part of the Office family.

In closing

The new software is available now to Office 365 subscribers, which continues to start at $70 a year or $7 a month for the Personal edition (access on one computer, tablet and phone; with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher and Access included). There's also a Student package that costs $80 for four years. While people with basic needs are still better off using either Google Drive or the web version of Office for free, business users in particular will appreciate the much-improved sharing features that finally allow them to use Office not just to get their own work done, but also to collaborate with coworkers. If Microsoft's mission really is to "reinvent productivity," and if businesses are the likeliest to bother paying subscription fees, then it was essential that Office cater not just to individual worker bees, but to whole teams. Microsoft clearly had to play catch-up, and took some cues from big-name competitors like Google and Trello in the process. The company is indeed late, but hopefully, it would seem, not too late.

[Image credits: All screenshots courtesy of Microsoft; lead and closing images: Dana Wollman/Engadget.]

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