Microsoft touts touch in Office 2013

To entice potential Windows 8 tablet users, the company has taken to its blogs to explain the touch capabilities in its upcoming Office suite.

Word 2013 Preview start screen
Word 2013 Preview start screen Microsoft

Microsoft is aiming Office 2013 at touch-screen devices as well as PCs. So the company is starting to pull out the stops to convince tablet users that the new Office is just right for them.

In a blog post yesterday, Clint Covington, a lead program manager for Microsoft's User Experience team, explained how touch works in the new suite. Products such as OneNote and Lync have been redesigned from the ground up to fully support touch. The other applications in Office have been "touch-enabled," which means they support certain touch features but remain true to their roots as desktop applications.

Designing apps to respond to a finger instead of a mouse can be challenging, so Microsoft had to enlarge certain elements in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Users will find fixed parts of the interface larger, such as the Quick Access toolbar, the ribbon, the status bar, and folders in Outlook. Certain menus will also appear larger.

But the size only increases when touch mode is enabled. You can turn touch mode on and off, depending on what type of device you're using, and the interface adapts. The onscreen keyboard also provides a fuller view of your document by automatically minimizing the ribbon and giving you more room to work.

Drag-and-drop gets an assist in touch mode through the use of selection handles that appear when you try to move or copy an item. Other touch features have been enabled through the suite, and Microsoft says it's still working to polish them up.

Office's new touch features will work on Windows 7 devices, Covington noted. But improvements in Windows 8 mean the experience will run better on tablets running the upcoming new OS.

In supporting touch, Office 2013 seems to be walking the same fine line as Windows 8.

Both have been designed as single products for touch-screen devices and traditional PCs. Such an approach clearly speaks to the challenge that Microsoft faces today. The company knows it must succeed in the growing market for mobile devices in order to stay relevant, yet it can't leave its core desktop users behind.

Of course, that approach is dicey. By designing one single product aimed at all devices, you risk creating a product that's feels just a bit off on any particular device. PC users of Windows 8 have already complained that certain Metro features of the OS can be difficult to use with a mouse and keyboard. With Office 2013, Microsoft erred on the side of caution by borrowing some of the flavors of Metro but maintaining the suite's roots in desktop applications.

Will the redesigned Office suite offer the right features to appeal to both tablet and PC users? With Office one of its bread-and-butter products, Microsoft is counting on it. But we'll have to see how consumers respond when the new suite hits the shelves.

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