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Microsoft Office 2016 And The End Of The Major Software Upgrade

Once upon a time, packages such as Office went through a big bang every few years. Now they’re about ongoing improvements in smaller doses.

Today, Microsoft is formally rolling out Office 2016, the new version of its productivity suite, also available as the Office 365 subscription service. The big news is a bunch of new features designed to enable effortless collaboration in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other apps.

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Collaboration was a focus of Office 2000, too.

When I heard that, I experienced an odd sense of déjà vu. For years–dating back to the previous century–when new versions of Office have come along, Microsoft has often pitched effortless collaboration as a primary benefit. Yet in 2015, it still feels like the next new thing.

Office 2016’s collaboration features are baked into multiple parts of the suite. The Windows desktop version of Word, for instance, now has real-time team editing, letting multiple people work on a document at the same time with all changes instantly visible to everybody. Using Skype for Business (formerly Lync), you can initiate chat sessions, audio calls, and video calls with colleagues within Office apps. Outlook has a new Groups feature that lets you keep tabs on collaborative work on shared documents without rummaging through invites in your inbox. And a web-based tool called Planner–launching in preview mode for users who have signed up to try new features at the earliest opportunity–offers a highly visual approach to basic project management.

Still, for all that’s new, Microsoft is still playing catchup with the collaborative editing features in Google’s browser-based apps, all of which have long offered real-time group editing as a principal feature. Based on the bit of time I had with a prerelease version of Office 2016 provided to me by Microsoft, the real-time editing in Word is nicely done, which makes its absence in the other Office desktop apps all the more striking. (Strangely, real-time editing is available in the browser-based versions of Excel and PowerPoint, even though they’ve got far fewer features overall than their desktop brethren.)

Word’s new real-time editing

The collaboration available in the new desktop versions of Excel and PowerPoint lets multiple people work on files at the same time. They can’t see what everyone else is doing, but each time someone saves a document to the cloud, the app merges changes. It’s useful, but it also feels like a vestige of an earlier era of office suites–a solution to the ancient problem of people sending files around as file attachments, rather than a reconceptualization of collaboration.

Office Everywhere, Finally

Here’s the thing, though: Even if Office 2016 is a bit of a disappointment if you judge it as a great big major software upgrade with an emphasis on teamwork, Office is in the best overall shape it’s been in for many years. It’s the only product in its category that’s available in just about any form you want to use it: on Windows PCs, on Macs, on every viable mobile operating system, and on the web. The versions aren’t all identical, but the interface makes sense across all the editions and every incarnation is solid in its own right.

It’s a remarkable shift from Microsoft’s classic, fantastically successful strategy for Office, which involved forging a symbiotic relationship between the suite and Windows, thereby weakening every platform that didn’t have Office. Even the suite’s venerable Mac version was often treated like an afterthought. And the browser-based Office apps originally had a vibe that suggested the company was afraid of creating anything that people might like too much, in case it led them to not buy the Windows versions.

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Office started to tiptoe down its current, welcome path several years ago, but if you want to set an official moment when the sea change happened, you’d probably pick March 27, 2014, when Microsoft announced the long-rumored version of the suite for the iPad. It wasn’t just nice–it was a fully touch-friendly version of Office that the company released well before it had one ready for Windows. That proved once and for all that Microsoft wasn’t going to hobble Office on other platforms in the interest of propping up its own operating system.

Since then, the company has released meaty freemium versions of Office for the iPhone and Android devices and turned Acompli, an excellent app it acquired, into the official version of Outlook for iOS and Android. It also came up with the first versions of the Office apps for the Mac in a long time that feel like both full-blown Office and full-blown OS X apps. It released Sway, a truly modern, inventive new take on presentations that is now an official Office 2016 app. And it’s testing GigJam, a really cutting-edge mobile productivity tool–due to ship as part of Office in 2016–that deconstructs tasks into “molecules of work.”

Sway, Office’s new-wave presentation tool

Every individual app in every specific version of Office has real competition. But nobody else is pursuing a vision of not only being available everywhere, but being really good everywhere with such gusto. For example, Google’s Docs, Spreadsheets, and Slides are terrific as browser-based apps, but their iPad incarnations are still a tad stunted.

And though conservative types will only stop buying Office as a stand-alone upgrade when Microsoft takes that option away from them, the prices that the company asks for the Office 365 service–staring at $70 a year for personal use and $8.25 per user per month for businesses–are not only reasonable, but a deal. That’s especially true if you plan to use the suite on multiple devices.

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Microsoft is far along enough on this journey that Office 2016 not being an old-style blockbuster upgrade isn’t worrisome. The fact that a particular feature isn’t in a given update is no longer an implicit statement that it’s unlikely to appear until a major upgrade two or three years in the future. It can appear when it’s ready. So far, the company has plugged away at improving the myriad components of the new multiplatform Office at a fair clip, suggesting that it’s committed to its new approach.

For folks who lived through the era of conventional mammoth software upgrades–me included–the new age of ongoing improvement requires a mental shift. It’s not just about Office, though. Microsoft has already called Windows 10 the last version of Windows, by which it means that it plans to treat the operating system as a service henceforth. It’ll evolve a little at a time, not in epoch-shifting reboots.

The company hasn’t declared Office 2016 to be the last version of Office. But in most respects that matter, the suite has already moved past the age of the major upgrade–and so far, the results are impressive.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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