A recent leak of Windows Blue, an impending update for Windows 8, persuaded some observers to argue that Microsoft is laying the groundwork needed to take the windows out of Windows by transferring several traditional desktop lynchpins to the touch-centric modern UI.
Right now, however, the idea is laughable for one simple reason: Microsoft can’t ditch the traditional desktop interface without having a modern UI version of Microsoft Office waiting in the wings. Along with Windows, the Office productivity suite is a key pillar of Microsoft’s consumer-facing business, and neither early reports nor Microsoft’s recent public admission that Blue exists ever linked Office with a modern UI makeover.
A new report does.
Gemini: Rethinking Microsoft Office
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley claims that a Blue-like rapid update cycle for Office exists, code-named "Gemini." The first wave of updates is allegedly due to arrive this fall, followed by a follow-up sometime next year. Foley expects the first fall wave to introduce modern UI versions of Office's various apps, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.
While Foley's report is based on information from anonymous sources, she is known to have deep ties to people in Microsoft, and Foley broke the news about Windows Blue several months back.
In addition to Foley's claims, a recent report from The Verge detailed comments by Microsoft’s Office president Kurt DelBene about the company’s plans to move more of the Office apps to the Modern UI. Currently, OneNote and Lync are the only Office apps with modern UI versions available.
DelBene’s comments suggested that the first modern UI iterations of the traditional Office apps will pack innovations designed around a touch-first focus, rather than attempting to be a fully fleshed-out replacement for their desktop counterparts.
"I think certainly the transition of the applications to the new environment, the WinRT environment, will allow us to rethink the applications and we have the benefit of the desktop applications still being present," he said. "What is the experience for (modern Office apps) when I know I've got the full applications on the desktop as well?"
More frequent Office updates
A rapid, incremental release cycle would bring Office into alignment with a recent proclamation from Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft's VP of communications, who said that a "continuous development cycle is the new normal across Microsoft."
It would also fit perfectly with Microsoft’s drive to push home and business users into Office 365 premium subscriptions.
An Office 365 subscription grants free and immediate access to Office app updates and improvements as they are released. Microsoft would no doubt give Office 365 subscribers access to the new modern-style apps, which would both add a new layer of luster to the subscription plans as well as double as a way to gradually coax hardcore Office users away from the desktop and into the modern UI environment.
All that said, it will take more than Live Tile-friendly Office apps to make the modern UI an ideal environment for serious work. There’s no simple way to quickly switch between open apps, for example, or for two apps to share the same screen equally. Changes in the upcoming Blue release may very well change that, but for right now, working with multiple modern UI applications is a hassle on a click-and-point, non-touch enabled PC.