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Office 2013 release won't bridge gap between desktops, mobile devices

Think Office 2013 will bridge the gap between desktops and mobile devices? Think again! While the Windows 8

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touch interface is meant for mobile devices, the Microsoft Office 2013 release doesn't play well with smartphones and tablets.

Using desktop virtualization to deliver apps to mobile devices is challenging. The experience that IT delivers can be great (lots of device support, good graphics, snappy performance), but the result is still a below-average experience for the end user. Windows applications aren't made to run in a touch interface, so users are either frustrated with their apps or forced to find native applications to do their jobs.

What the Windows 8 Interface can do

Enter Windows 8 and the snazzy new Metro interface (although they don't call it that). Instead, after much consideration and legal positioning, they call it the "Windows 8 Interface." Some experts have taken to calling it "TileWorld." Windows 8 Interface and the applications written for it are designed to be used by touch and mouse, but after playing with a device, it seems that mouse support was almost accidental.

Even though you may have dismissed the Windows 8 Interface from taking over the majority of your desktops, at least for now, the OS consistently comes up when addressing the issue of mobile users who want conformity across multiple devices. Companies I talk to repeatedly mention how they're at least curious to try the Surface Pro tablet as a way to let their users have a tablet while still providing them with the company's own apps. 

You may recall an article I wrote a while back about how the future of the desktop is bits and pieces all working together. This is the opposite of that. The Windows 8 approach is vendor lock-in: Buy Windows 8, buy Software Assurance, stick with Microsoft hardware and software and you won't have to worry about crazy licensing or cross-platform issues. Plus, if you build your apps in TileWorld, they'll work on any Windows device -- at least that's the idea.

Why Office 2013 doesn't measure up

With all the focus on the experience and applications, why then does Microsoft Office 2013 still require a keyboard and mouse? Word or Excel is almost always at the top of the list when discussing the problem with using Windows applications on touch-based devices. Working with them is painfully hard to do. Fingers are too fat to hit menu items and pinch-zooming is hardly a solution, especially when I can get native applications that make it far easier to do what I need to do.

With the Microsoft Office 2013 release this year, the company could have put an end to this in two possible ways: Offer a touch version of Office (not touch-enabled, which is what we got) or release native Office applications for all platforms. Instead, it recompiled Office for ARM so Microsoft could include it on Surface RT tablets and added Touch Mode. 

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Turning on Touch Mode simply increases the space between icons and buttons. That's all. There are still menus, menu bars and icons. Absolutely no thought has been put into reworking an interface that has spent the last 20 years being built to use keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl-B, Ctrl-U or Ctrl-I.

This half-baked approach is the reason that the Surface RT tablets come with a Desktop mode, which confuses users because they can't run any traditional Windows apps on the device despite the desktop being available to them, not to mention there are separate versions of applications such as Internet Explorer. It's also the reason that Microsoft can sell a keyboard for $120 that costs $16 to make.

A touch-able Office could have bought Microsoft time to release native versions for different platforms. A touch-able version would have enabled organizations to deliver Office via Remote Desktop Services or virtual desktop infrastructure to any mobile user with no loss of experience. Plus, Microsoft would have given people a legitimate reason to upgrade to Office 2013 instead of focusing on SkyDrive or Office 365

When it's all said and done, we're stuck with the same old Office and, for the most part, the same old problems. Why would an organization go through the effort and expense of upgrading to Microsoft Office 2013 when there is so little to be gained? Perhaps Touch Mode is better than nothing, but I'm willing to wager that there are ways to tweak the Office 2010 user interface to make it just as usable as Touch Mode in 2013.

For the time being, we can take solace in the fact that the way we deliver Office today -- whether it be through desktop virtualization, streaming or native installs -- is still the best option. Still, that leaves something to be desired. 

Perhaps in 2013 we'll see something better than Touch Mode. Maybe we'll see native applications for different platforms, or at least for Windows 8 Interface. If it lives in TileWorld, we'll be able to deploy it to users in the most appropriate way for their device (remote, native, streamed, touch-style or desktop-style). And that's all we've ever really wanted to do anyway.

This was first published in January 2013

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How do you think Microsoft can improve Office 2013 for mobile devices?

Gabe Knuth
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