Microsoft's new Sway tool blends Office apps into a platform for presenting ideas

Microsoft Sway highlight

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Microsoft’s newest Office app, Sway, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Instead of designing a new service to complement Word, PowerPoint, or OneNote, Sway meets them all in the middle.

And if you don’t like the direction Sway’s going, Microsoft wants to hear all about it..

Microsoft launched as a preview, and users can sign up for an invitation on the site. Don’t expect to print out Sway files. Conceptually, Sways look like a rich, graphics-laden Word document—or, conversely, a text-heavy PowerPoint file that ditches bullet points for paragraphs of text. And they’re all put together using an easy, OneNote-style interface with less of an emphasis on scrawled notes and more about pulling content from elsewhere on the Web.

sway from one drive Microsoft

The layout view for a Sway. This appears to be somewhat complex, but Microsoft says that putting together a Sway canvas will be natural and intuitive.

“It’s a new way for you to create a beautiful, interactive, web-based expression of your ideas, from your phone or browser,” the Sway team blogged on Wednesday. “It is easy to share your creation and it looks great on any screen. Your ideas have no borders, edges, page breaks, cells or slides. Your mind is a continuous canvas, and Sway brings this canvas to life.”

Why this matters: Microsoft is breaking out of its historical mold of pigeonholing the world’s work into one of three categories: Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. You might see Sway as a response to numerous third-party apps and services that take what Microsoft has done and tweak it for modern uses. And Microsoft is encouraging customer feedback, too.

According to a Microsoft representative, “Sway” represents some fundamental aspects of Microsoft’s product philosophy: It’s lightweight, and the usability and overall design have a smoothness and fluidity to them. 

Microsoft Sway iPhone

Microsoft Sway for the iPhone.

When you create a Sway, the software itself organizes your Sway canvas for you, according to Microsoft. The idea is that you shouldn’t have to worry about formatting, alignment or font sizes. If you “star” or “showcase” a photo, Sway will automatically highlight it for you, elevating its prominence in your document. (See image at top.)

You don't even need to embed one photo, then another, either: Sway allows you to stack photos in a collection. You can lay out your information using either a traditional horizontal or vertical scrolling format, or use zoomable section headers or even a flashcard format to present your ideas online. (The links connect to Sways that Microsoft has posted online.) And, of course, they can be shared—that’s the whole idea, in fact. 

Microsoft will obviously launch Sway for Windows, and the blog post highlights Sway for the Apple iPhone as well. Microsoft hasn’t said what other platforms Sway will launch on, however.

We haven’t yet had a chance to try out Sway. But Microsoft continues to invigorate Office with enhancements such as Office Mix, its online screencasting app, and its recent attempt to collect content that you’ll need in Office, known as Delve.  While most people think of Office, and Microsoft, as a staid, stale product, someone high up in the Office division thinks it’s high time to give it a kick in the pants.

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