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Microsoft may add 'Tell me' help feature to next Office

The help feature, which answers specific questions, is already in Office Online. Now it seems to be in the works for the next desktop version, a report says.

Microsoft's Tell Me feature appears to be slated for the next version of Office. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Microsoft is apparently adding the helpful Tell Me feature from its Office Online suite to the next desktop edition of Office.

The software giant's partners and testers have been getting a peek at an early version of the next Office, "sources familiar with Microsoft's Office plans," told The Verge, revealing the new Tell Me feature as well as other changes. Microsoft added the Tell Me feature to Office Online this past January as a way to answer your questions and actually run specific commands for you.

Here's how the feature works in Office Online:

A takeoff from the old Clippy but without the intrusive cartoon character, Tell Me appears as a field in the top toolbar of Office with the phrase "Tell me what you want to do" and an icon of a lightbulb to identify it. Let's say you want to run a certain task or command in Office but don't know how to do it or where to find it. Just type the name of the task in the Tell Me field, and Office responds with a list of potential matching commands.

For example, let's say you want to number the pages in your current Word document but don't know how to do that. Type the phrase "page numbers" in the Tell Me field. Word provides a list of possible commands that match your phrase. Choose the most appropriate one, in this case, "Insert Page Numbers." Word then displays a list of thumbnail pages in which you can select where on the page you want the numbers to appear. Simply click the thumbnail of your choice, and Word performs the action for you automatically.

Office Online contains only a small subset of the commands available in the desktop version. Assuming Tell Me works the same way in the next version of Office as it does in Office Online, users should be able to get help on a wide variety of features.

Beyond adding Tell Me, the next Office offers just a few other changes so far, according to The Verge's souces.

Microsoft has created a new black theme for the interface to add to the current color choices of light gray, dark gray, and white. A new image rotation feature automatically rotates an inserted photograph to match the camera's orientation. And in the new version of Outlook, you can choose to sync your mail every day, every 3 days, every 7 days, or every 14 days. The current version of Outlook limits you to downloading a minimum of one month of email, which can sometimes cause trouble if you've got lots of mail and are running low on space.

The version of Office spotted by The Verge's sources is an early edition, so expect Microsoft to keep tweaking it and adding more features before it officially launches.