First look: Microsoft Office 2016 for enterprise hints at easy searching, colorful UI

microsoft office logo feb 2015
Credit: Microsoft

The first glance at the future of Office for Windows is here, in the form of the Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview. It’s the initial public iteration of the suite that will be released sometime in the second half of 2015, so at this point it’s very much a work in progress.

I’ve spent a good deal of time with it—and while there are a few interesting user additions, the bigger improvements so far are under the hood and will benefit businesses the most.

The preview is available for free to those who have an Office 365 ProPlus subscription, an Office 365 Enterprise E3 plan or an Office 365 Enterprise E4 plan. If you’re interested in getting it, go to Microsoft Connect, register and follow the installation instructions.

Installation woes

Given that this is an early preview, don’t be surprised if you experience installation woes—I certainly did. I uninstalled my existing consumer edition of Office 2013 before trying to install the new version, in the hopes that the installation would go smoothly. Those hopes were quickly dashed.

I tried several times to install and, each time, when it seemed that 85% of the installation had been performed, the installation appeared to stop. When I checked the Windows 8 Start screen, I found an icon for the Word 2016 Preview, but not for any other Office apps. Word worked fine, but no other icons for Office applications could be found.

office 2016 preview cw red fror powerpoint

In Office 2016, each application has its own color—in this instance, red for PowerPoint.

However, after spending a good deal of time with Microsoft tech support, they had me browse through my hard disk to the C:\Windows\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Office\root\Office 16 folder. There I saw that all the Office applications had been installed, even though the icons to run them hadn’t. I created shortcuts to them on the taskbar, and I was in business. They all ran without a hitch.

What’s new for users

There’s very little new compared to Office 2013 in this preview—no great surprise given that Kirk Koenigsbauer, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for the Office 365 client apps and services team, wrote in a blog post, “To be clear, this early build doesn’t yet contain all the features we’re planning to ship in the final product.” And keep in mind that this preview is targeted at IT and developers, not at consumers or other end-users of Office.

The most visible change is that Office applications each now have their own distinctive color schemes: blue for Word, green for Excel and red for PowerPoint, with Outlook and Visio lighter shades of blue. The color is most noticeable in the Ribbon across the top of the program windows and in the title bar. You can always go back to the white of the previous version of Office if you want. As for me, there’s little enough color in daily life, so the bright new colors are a welcome change.

The Ribbon is still much the same—no new tabs and no major changes to existing tabs. However, there is one nice addition that so far is available only on the Ribbon in Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Project and Visio: A box to the far right with the text, “Tell me what you want to do.”

Type in a task and you get a list of potential matches. Click any item in the list and you bring up instructions on how to accomplish it. For example, I typed Envelope while in Word and got the options Create Envelopes and Start Mail Merge. I clicked each of the options and was walked through the process of doing what each said. Simple, clean and useful.

office 2016 preview search box

A new search box in the Ribbon of some of the applications (this one in Word) lets you easily find options or menus to accomplish specific tasks.

This new feature saved considerable time compared to hunting through the Ribbon. It also remembers the features you’ve previously clicked in the box, surfacing them first in the list. That way, common tasks that you frequently perform are always within easy reach.

Not that it always worked. When I typed layout in Word I got a handful of choices, but all were grayed-out so they couldn’t be used. A few kinks still need to be worked out. Still, I hope this feature extends to Outlook, given the wealth of features it has that aren’t always immediately apparent.

Another, smaller addition also proved useful. In what Microsoft calls the Backstage area (it appears when you click “File” on the Ribbon), when you perform tasks such as opening a file, you see all of the cloud-based services you’ve connected to your account, such as SharePoint and OneDrive. That isn’t new—the feature was already in the 2013 version of Office. What is new, though, is that each of those locations now shows the associated email address—very helpful if you use a cloud service with more than one account, such as the two OneDrive accounts I have for personal and business data, respectively.

Changes to Outlook

At this early stage I also noticed a few changes to Outlook. For example, when you’re composing an email and click Insert > Attach File, you’ll see a list of all the recent files you’ve used in Office. Given the reasonable chance that you’ll be inserting a file you’ve worked on recently, this is a real convenience.

office 2016 preview recently used office files

It’s now easier to attach files in Outlook, thanks to a new feature that lists all of your most recently used Office files.

Outlook will also adjust its interface depending on the size of the window in which you run it. It normally has a three-pane view: folders in the left pane, list of emails in the middle pane and the email text in the right pane. However, when you run Outlook in a small window, it now shrinks to either a two-pane view or a one-pane view, depending on the window size.

What’s new for IT folks

For IT staff, the most important addition is the extension of data loss protection (DLP) to Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Until now, DLP has been available only in communications-oriented tools, including Exchange, SharePoint, Outlook and OneDrive for Business. IT administrators will be able to control what kinds of information different users and different groups can include in the documents they create, and can also manage document sharing. 

Outlook's under-the-hood changes improve Outlook stability on unreliable networks, and reduce the download time of email. Microsoft is improving Outlook's search speed and reliability, while an updated MAPI-HTTP protocol should be more Internet-friendly. Users can now also reduce the amount of storage space Outlook uses by choosing how long to keep email on their devices.

A new service called Background Intelligence Transfer Service (BITS) is designed to prevent network congestion. There's also better integration with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), so administrators can more efficiently distribute monthly Office updates, and control the number and frequency as well.

None of that is visible in the preview, of course. But for IT folks, these changes may ultimately be more important than whatever cosmetic and features changes Microsoft eventually makes to the Office interface.

Tantalizing hints of the consumer edition to come

The Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview doesn’t look much different from Office 2013. Aside from a new color scheme and relatively minor new features, the most meaningful changes are for IT staff rather than end users. Otherwise, there’s little reason to download this preview. You’d be better off to wait for the public preview of the 2016 consumer version, expected to be available within the next several months.

This story, "First look: Microsoft Office 2016 for enterprise hints at easy searching, colorful UI" was originally published by Computerworld.

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