So the flagship productivity app doesn’t even work fully with the new flagship OS. The last time we saw this? Vista.
With Windows 8, Microsoft has created an operating system that is, at least in part, genuinely usable with nothing more than fingers. While it took the company a long time to recognize that finger-based touch systems were more approachable than stylus-based ones, and that touch-based software needed to be designed to accommodate the imprecision that fingers imply, Microsoft has its finger-based platform at last with the new Metro-style interface and new Metro-style applications. Office 2013, however, isn’t a new Metro-style application.
Instead, the suite contains two Metro-style Office apps: a new OneNote client (that will work alongside a regular desktop version) and a Lync client. Everything else is a desktop application, which poses a problem. Office is an important product for Microsoft and makes up a significant part of the Windows 8 sales pitch. Windows RT, the ARM variant of Windows 8 that will be used on the company’s Surface tablets, will ship with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, and the presence of these applications will be one of the big things that sets Windows RT apart from the iPad. For these programs to have any value at all, they have to be touch friendly.
So how did Microsoft do?
Ready to touch
Historically, the Office team never made any concessions to Microsoft’s broader tablet ambitions. With the exception of OneNote, the Office apps have never been comfortable for pen users, and it seemed that the Office team was happy with that. That’s no longer the case with Office 2013. The suite contains a range of improvements to make finger access better. Across the board, menus created in the main UI are given wider spacing when invoked with fingers. The same is true of the hovering formatting toolbars in Word and Excel; when touching the screen, they’re much larger and easier to manipulate.
The sizing of the rest of the UI is controlled by a new “full screen” mode that changes the interface to better accommodate touch input. In theory, the applications will use this mode by default when installed on tablet hardware (though they didn’t for me on a mouseless Samsung tablet); otherwise, the applications all have a full screen mode button next to the minimize button.
Enlarge / Above, Outlook 2013′s ribbon in touch mode. Below, the ribbon in normal mode.
Hit this button and a few things happen. The ribbon, title bar, and quick access toolbar all disappear, replaced by a strip along the top of the window with a “…” either in the center (for OneNote) or on the right-hand side (for everything else). Tap that strip and the ribbon and status bars reappear. The status bar also disappears and similarly reappears when the “…” strip is touched. Windows 8′s standard “swipe from the top of the screen” gesture doesn’t bring up the ribbon; I think it would be more consistent if it did.
Word’s floating toolbar in touch mode, above, and normal mode, below. The same buttons in the same order, just spaced out a little more.
When the ribbon is displayed in this mode, its spacing is altered to make the targets a little bigger. This is especially apparent on the various menus that can pop up from the ribbon; these are normally quite tightly packed.
As well as these spacing adjustments, the applications now respond to two-finger zooming. This mainly performs a conventional zoom, but in Outlook’s calendar view it does a semantic zoom, allowing you to zoom right in to a single day, or all the way out to a month at a time. To this, Word also adds a tap-to-zoom feature when in Read Mode, to allow tables, images, or other objects to be zoomed in a similar fashion to touch-based browsers.
And… that’s about it, the full extent of the finger support that Microsoft has added to Office 2013. If it doesn’t sound like much, there’s a good reason for that: it isn’t. For stylus users, the company says that accuracy has been improved, particularly in OneNote, but using the software with fingers is problematic.