Who should stay Who should leave Free al­ter­na­tives: Google vs Li­breOf­fice

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No-one likes a stealth tax, yet that’s ex­actly what some peo­ple ac­cuse Mi­crosoft of im­ple­ment­ing. While we wouldn’t want to go back to the days of pay­ing £400 for a sin­gle-user li­cence of Of­fice desk­top soft­ware, the monthly drip of £6 to £13 per month starts to add up. So is Mi­crosoft de­liv­er­ing real value for money or are we all mugs?

Make no mis­take, Of­fice 365 is a cru­cial part of Mi­crosoft’s drive to­wards a cloud-first fu­ture. And with it, prof­itabil­ity: it made a $21 bil­lion profit in 2017 com­pared to $12 bil­lion in 2015, when Of­fice 365 was re­leased. Through ag­gres­sive pric­ing, mar­ket­ing and a steady dep­re­ca­tion of the stand­alone ver­sions, Red­mond has done ev­ery­thing in its power to make Of­fice 365 the stan­dard way to buy Of­fice.

Sadly for Mi­crosoft, not ev­ery­one is keen to jump on board. The sales pitch for Of­fice 365 has al­ways fo­cused on shift­ing away from the big re­leases to a con­tin­u­ally evolv­ing of­fice suite, with new fea­tures rolling out on an al­most monthly ba­sis. Yet, you don’t have to be a cynic to sug­gest that Of­fice 365 still looks and feels an aw­ful lot like the ver­sion that launched three years ago, which closely re­sem­bled the one that emerged back in 2012.

Are we pay­ing a sub­scrip­tion for soft­ware that’s con­stantly im­prov­ing, its in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments be­ing over­looked

be­cause we’ve for­got­ten what we started with a few years ago? Or are we merely pay­ing a monthly re­tainer for the same old Of­fice?

To find out, we’re go­ing to delve into Of­fice’s fea­tures, fo­cus­ing on those that have rolled out since July 2015, when Of­fice 2016 hit the shelves. Are any of these fea­tures game chang­ers, or are they just the sort of mi­nor up­dates, fixes and cos­metic changes that might pre­vi­ously have ar­rived in a Ser­vice Pack? We’re also go­ing to look at the com­pe­ti­tion. If Of­fice has grown stag­nant, are Google’s G Suite and the open-source Li­breOf­fice catch­ing up?

What’s changed in Of­fice?

If you’re a ca­sual Of­fice user mak­ing light use of ba­sic fea­tures, or even an old-school power user with an es­tab­lished way of work­ing, you might agree that Of­fice hasn’t changed no­tice­ably in the past three years. In terms of the ba­sic look and feel of its core fea­tures, Of­fice 2016 wasn’t a huge leap for­wards from Of­fice 2013, with much of the fo­cus on col­lab­o­ra­tive edit­ing and team­work tools, along­side closer in­te­gra­tion with OneDrive and Skype.

More­over, many of the post-2015 en­hance­ments cen­tre on cur­rent Mi­crosoft pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, which may or may not in­ter­est you. Many fo­cus on the pen and ink tools be­ing pushed on the com­pany’s Sur­face de­vices, or on sup­port for the 3D con­tent tools that came with the Win­dows 10 Cre­ators Up­date.

For in­stance, a new cus­tomis­able, por­ta­ble pen set can be used across all Of­fice apps on all de­vices, while new ink and pen­cil ef­fects give you fresh op­tions for an­no­ta­tions, notes and plans. You can use a pen to se­lect and change ob­jects in Word, Pow­er­Point and Ex­cel, or sketch out rough squares, cir­cles and blobs be­fore con­vert­ing them into shapes in Word. These fea­tures might be game chang­ers if you’ve em­braced the sty­lus, but for those of us work­ing on a nor­mal desk­top or lap­top, they’re al­most ir­rel­e­vant.

As for 3D con­tent, it’s in­ter­est­ing that all the ma­jor ap­pli­ca­tions now sup­port 3D mod­els, al­low­ing you to pull one into a doc­u­ment then re­size and ro­tate it to your heart’s con­tent. But for many busi­ness users, the lack of rel­e­vant con­tent – or re­sources and de­sire to cre­ate their own – is a real stick­ing point. There’s good news for 2D art­work: the Re­move Back­ground fea­ture gives you Pho­to­shop-style tools that can re­move a plain back­ground in a mat­ter of sec­onds.

Other changes sim­ply en­sure that fea­tures ap­ply more con­sis­tently through­out the suite. For ex­am­ple, real-time col­lab­o­ra­tion fea­tures, where you can see a doc­u­ment up­dat­ing, char­ac­ter by char­ac­ter, as an­other ed­i­tor works on it, were re­stricted to Word in the ini­tial re­lease. Now they’re there in Ex­cel and Pow­er­Point too, though you need to share the files through OneDrive or SharePoint to ben­e­fit. You can also view and re­store changes in shared doc­u­ments, mak­ing it eas­ier to roll back un­wanted or un­nec­es­sary ed­its.

The help­ful “Tell me what you want to do” box – the stealth-Clippy fea­ture that tracks down fea­tures from the search box – has also been en­hanced and rolled out across the core ap­pli­ca­tions, while the File | Open dialog ben­e­fits from Re­cent and Shared With Me short­cuts. All the same, we’re not so much talk­ing ma­jor new fea­tures as Ser­vice Pack-level im­prove­ments.


Do more dra­matic im­prove­ments emerge when you drill down to the in­di­vid­ual ap­pli­ca­tions? Let’s start with Word. One of Of­fice 2016’s big­gest strengths has be­come its use of Mi­crosoft’s AI and ma­chine learn­ing to get you started on com­mon Of­fice tasks or en­hance the qual­ity of your work. Take Word’s Ed­i­tor pane ( see Word’s

killer fea­ture be­low), for ex­am­ple, or the new Re­searcher tool.

Call the lat­ter up from the Ref­er­ences tab, type in a sub­ject,

and Bing will go away and search for sources. From these you can pull out notes and even quotes, with Re­searcher track­ing ci­ta­tions and adding them au­to­mat­i­cally to the doc­u­ment’s bib­li­og­ra­phy. You may pre­fer work­ing in­de­pen­dently through your browser, or you might trust Google to de­liver stronger sources, but Re­searcher can be great for get­ting a head start on a topic or search­ing for a rel­e­vant snip­pet of info to sup­port a key point. It’s ar­guably of most use to stu­dents or jour­nal­ists, but if you spend any time try­ing to pull notes to­gether for a re­port or meet­ing, hav­ing a built-in tool that tracks sources and ci­ta­tions can be a real time-saver.

Right next to Re­searcher, you’ll find the new Smart Lookup, again pow­ered by Bing. Ap­ply it to a word or phrase and you’re pre­sented with not only a def­i­ni­tion, but more in-depth ex­pla­na­tions from a range of dif­fer­ent sources, along with more gen­eral web search re­sults. Smart Lookup isn’t al­ways all that smart, how­ever. I looked up “fi­esta”, in the con­text of fes­tiv­i­ties, and was shown con­tent around Ford’s small car and a US gro­cery chain.

Other new fea­tures might not set the world alight. You can page through longer doc­u­ments like a book in­stead of con­tin­u­ously scrolling through them – great on a big desk­top screen, if al­most use­less on a lap­top. You can also add a char­ac­ter count to the sta­tus bar, or view and re­store changes in shared doc­u­ments with­out leav­ing Word. Smart Quotes have been im­proved to work more ac­cu­rately around punc­tu­a­tion. Mean­while, the new Trans­la­tor for Of­fice 365 fea­ture is ba­si­cally a re­place­ment for the old Mini Trans­la­tor win­dow. On the plus side, it’s a more ef­fec­tive tool, han­dling longer pas­sages and pro­duc­ing rea­son­able work­ing trans­la­tions that make al­most per­fect sense.


Pow­er­Point hasn’t sat still for the past few years, ei­ther, with the most use­ful ad­di­tion be­ing De­signer. While no re­place­ment for a real de­signer or a strong set of cor­po­rate tem­plates, its De­sign Ideas can trans­form a deck of slides into some­thing that looks pro­fes­sional.

If you’re pressed for time, the new Quick­S­tarter tem­plate could be tempt­ing. Just type in a topic and this in­tel­li­gent tool goes to work with the help of Bing, ask­ing you to pick from a se­lec­tion of vis­ual treat­ments be­fore com­ing back with a sug­gested struc­ture, rel­e­vant facts to get you started and even ideas for other ar­eas or points for fur­ther re­search. It’s a fea­ture that should play well with Of­fice 365 Home and Per­sonal sub­scribers, but is it use­ful in a busi­ness con­text? Pos­si­bly not. It’s one of those tools that hints at a fu­ture where in­tel­li­gent as­sis­tants dig out ideas and in­sights to im­prove your pro­duc­tiv­ity, but at the mo­ment it’s more suited to the class­room than the board­room.

Other ad­di­tions are smaller, but po­ten­tially more use­ful. The new Morph tran­si­tion al­lows you to du­pli­cate a slide and move or add el­e­ments, then morph be­tween the orig­i­nal and the copy with all the el­e­ments shift­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously. It’s a clas­sic max­i­mum im­pact, min­i­mum ef­fort ef­fect. The same is true of the new Zoom fea­ture. In­sert a zoom into a slide, se­lect the slides or sec­tions you want in­cluded and Pow­er­Point will flick from one to the next with a sweep­ing zoom in, zoom out an­i­ma­tion. It’s per­fect for sum­maries or a more ki­netic, at­ten­tion-grab­bing pre­sen­ta­tion.


If Word and Pow­er­Point boast eye-catch­ing new fea­tures, Ex­cel’s en­hance­ments are less im­me­di­ate. Few of us thrill to the sound of faster open­ing of com­plex doc­u­ments, im­proved au­to­com­plete or a more flex­i­ble copy fea­ture, but all im­prove ba­sic us­abil­ity, al­beit in ways that you might not no­tice.

Other im­prove­ments make more of a dif­fer­ence when you’re deal­ing with large or com­plex datasets in re­search or en­ter­prise. Over the past two years, Mi­crosoft has steadily drip-fed out ad­di­tions to the Query Ed­i­tor, such as new trans­for­ma­tions for Adding Col­umns by Ex­am­ple or split­ting and group­ing col­umns to ma­nip­u­late their

data. Again, these fea­tures rely on Mi­crosoft’s al­go­rithms to get Ex­cel to han­dle the grunt work, leav­ing you to dig fur­ther or re­fine. When you do come up with some­thing in­ter­est­ing, closer in­te­gra­tion with Power BI makes it eas­ier to share queries or in­sights with col­leagues. Of course, not ev­ery Ex­cel user ever touches the Query Ed­i­tor, let alone uses Power BI, but if you do then the ex­pe­ri­ence should have im­proved.

Mi­crosoft has also de­liv­ered a cou­ple of ex­tra ways to vi­su­alise data through the new map and fun­nel charts. The lat­ter are de­signed to show changes in value across mul­ti­ple stages of a pipe­line or process.


You could ar­gue that, with Out­look, Mi­crosoft is steal­ing Google’s tricks. The new Fo­cused In­box view is one ex­am­ple, bor­row­ing from Google’s In­box, but Out­look has also pinched Gmail’s idea of suck­ing in­for­ma­tion out of your in­com­ing emails and us­ing it to cre­ate re­minders or events. Gmail users will know that this is par­tic­u­larly use­ful for meet­ings and travel ar­range­ments, and Out­look does a rea­son­able job of putting ap­point­ments, flights and ho­tel reservations on your sched­ule where they’ll be more ac­ces­si­ble, though Mi­crosoft’s as­sis­tant isn’t

Ex­cel’s map chart tool al­lows you to com­pare data – for ex­am­ple, pop­u­la­tion den­sity – us­ing maps gleaned from Bing quite as smart as Google’s when it comes to spot­ting and cap­tur­ing the vi­tal info.

Vanilla Out­look 2016 in­tro­duced a move away from send­ing files via email to leav­ing those files in your OneDrive cloud and send­ing per­mis­sions to share, view, down­load and edit. More re­cent changes have made this more straight­for­ward, by al­low­ing you to drag-and-drop cloud-stored at­tach­ments as if they were at­tached to the email. You can also set per­mis­sions to these files, en­sur­ing that peo­ple can’t edit and re­use them if you only want them to view.

Fi­nally, sales teams or smaller busi­nesses shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate the Of­fice 365-ex­clu­sive Out­look Cus­tomer Man­ager add-in. This en­ables you to set up com­pa­nies, con­tacts, events and deals within a cus­tomer-cen­tric view, so that you can view touch­points, con­ver­sa­tions, meet­ings and op­por­tu­ni­ties com­pany by com­pany, with all the rel­e­vant data close to hand. It trans­forms Out­look into some­thing a lit­tle more like a cus­tomer re­la­tion­ship man­age­ment tool; one that’s track­ing your email con­ver­sa­tions and cal­en­dar events to give you a big­ger-pic­ture view. Just be aware, how­ever, that it takes a while to set up and start us­ing, and even more time be­fore it starts get­ting to grips with your data and throw­ing up use­ful in­for­ma­tion.

BE­LOW Type in a sub­ject and Re­searcher, which is pow­ered by Bing, will bring up a list of sources, mak­ing it easy to get to grips with a topic

LEFT Word’s Ed­i­tor tool is far more than a re­place­ment spellchecker – used wisely, it can gen­uinely im­prove your use of words

BE­LOW The best of Pow­er­Point’s new fea­tures are the De­sign Ideas tem­plates, Smart Lookup – which pro­vides use­ful ref­er­ence ma­te­rial – and the abil­ity to im­port 3D mod­els


BE­LOW Out­look’s new, Google-style Fo­cused In­box view makes it easy to quickly see your most im­por­tant emails via a tab

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