In an effort to create a somewhat consistent user experience across the phone, tablet, and desktop, Microsoft has forced the tile metaphor on the desktop and not done a terribly good job of implementing it. They're going to have to do a lot more than make cosmetic changes before Windows 8 is usable on a non-touch device.
Best kept Office 365 secret: The apps
The best kept secret of Office 365 is the apps.
The new version of Office 365 launches for consumers today. Taking a cue from mobile platforms with integrated, easy-to-use app stores, Microsoft is letting users browse for, download, and use apps from within each of the Office products. The apps available at launch hint at how useful the apps may be -- if end users realize they're available and if developers decide to build more of them.
At the start, there are just around 200 apps available, including apps for integrated LinkedIn, Twitter, Bing Maps, and Bing search functionalities.
To browse for or access apps in Word, for example, users go to the Insert tab and click on an icon that says Apps for Office. A dropdown offers quick access to recently used apps. Hitting “see all” in the drop down opens a window where users can choose from apps they’ve downloaded, view featured apps, or visit the Word app store in the browser.
The Bing Image Search app displays a column on the right side of the open Word document. Highlighting a word or phrase in the document kicks off an image search, with results appearing in the right side column. Users can drag and drop images into their documents.
A similar app performs a news search for highlighted words. Users can even have both apps running at the same time.
Other Word apps include dictionaries, diagram templates, and foreign language dictionaries. An app contributed by eFax lets eFax customers send faxes directly from Word. Another from Avery office products offers templates for Avery products like labels and business cards.
Excel has some nice apps too. A Bing Maps app will plot data on a map. During an Office 365 demo day for the press last week, Microsoft executives showed a spreadsheet with a cost of living index for the U.S. Running the Bing Maps app plotted the data on the map, indicating the cities from the index with circles varying in size based on the data. A geographic heat map app similarly plots data on maps.
Some of the most useful apps are available for Outlook, but they are only available to people who will be using Office 365 combined with Exchange 2013. Apps for Outlook are particularly nice because once downloaded they become available only in circumstances that you’re likely to want them. The content in emails triggers them.
Microsoft execs showed off how a few of the Outlook apps work. After clicking on a message header to display the message in the right side preview pain, the names of relevant apps appeared near the top of the message content. In one example, the message was from a person the recipient didn’t know. That made a link to the LinkedIn app appear above the content of the message.
Clicking on the link doesn’t launch a window or an app; it elegantly adds a pane above the content of the email where the user can send a LinkedIn invitation to connect to the message sender. “You can interact with LinkedIn within the email,” said Richard Riley, a Microsoft director.
He showed off a similar app for Bing Maps. When an email message included a physical address, a link to the Bing Maps app appeared along the top of the email message. Clicking on it displayed a map with the address plotted, still within the original email message rather than a pop up. Users can manipulate the map in the same way they would on the Bing Maps web page, switching to satellite view or zooming in.
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