It must be tough to be on the Microsoft Office team. Year after year, you're given the same assignment: add new features to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. New features that people will pay for, but that won't turn Microsoft's cash cow into a bloated, sloshing mess. But how do you do that? Microsoft Word is already a word processor, a Web design programme, a database and a floor wax. What on earth is left to add?
For the last few versions, Microsoft has mostly just shuffled around the existing features. Reorganising them into a Ribbon toolbar to make them easier to find, for example, or brightening the background for a cleaner look. This year, the biggest news isn't the software, but how you pay for it.
Way 1: buy the Office suite as you always have, for $140 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote) to $400 (those programs plus Outlook, Access and Publisher).
Way 2: buy an annual subscription to these programmes for $100 a year. That plan is called Office 365. (That's right: the programmes known for a year as Office 15 are sold as Office 2013, and available through Office 365. Nobody ever accused Microsoft of clarity in naming.)
Microsoft argues that this subscription offers all kinds of benefits. First, you can download and run the Office programs on up to five computers, including Macs and PCs. You can change which five they are at any time. (Windows PCs get Office 2013, with settings magically synced across computers. Macs get the older, less refined Office 2011 for Mac.)
If your home or office has a bunch of computers, you could save money; buying five copies outright would set you back $700. That's more economical only if you plan to use that increasingly ancient version for at least seven years.
With a subscription, you'll always get the latest version — Office 2015, Office 2031, Office 2119 — but, of course, you have to pay $100 a year forever. (If your subscription lapses, you can open or print your documents, but you can't edit them or create new ones.)
You might be appalled at the notion of paying Microsoft an annual fee forever to get something you used to own outright. Or might like the idea of a fixed, knowable fee that keeps you up to date. Either way, an Office 365 subscription gets you more than just five copies of the software. It also includes Office on Demand, which is the ability to download Office programs onto any Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer — at a branch office or a friend's house, say. Touch up your slides, write up that proposal; when you log out, the downloaded Office software vanishes.
Online storage disk
The SkyDrive is a free 7-gigabyte online storage disk for files that you want to access from anywhere, from any computer, tablet or smartphone with an Internet connection. In Office 13, it's more important; in fact, the factory setting is to save new documents onto your SkyDrive. And if you subscribe to Office 365, you get another 20 gigabytes. That's a lot of slides and spreadsheets.
Even that isn't the end of the pot-sweetening. The same $100 fee also buys you one hour a month of free Skype-to-phone calls. (Microsoft bought Skype last year.) That is, from a computer, tablet or phone that has Skype installed, you can call to regular landline or cell phone numbers — something that usually costs a few cents a minute. (Calls to computers and smartphones, using Skype addresses, like Skibunny20304, are still free.)
So far, it must sound as if the only thing new in Office 2013 is how you pay for it. But there are also plenty of nips and tucks to the software itself. The programs have a new design that matches the clean, rectangular lines of Windows 8's Start screen. No drop shadows, shaded toolbars or rounded corners on buttons or boxes.
Speaking of touch screens — and Microsoft has been speaking of them incessantly lately — a new Touch Mode is supposed to spread out Office's buttons and menu items, so that you can more easily hit them with a finger. It's not much spreading, though. You'll still wish you had a mouse.
Each Office program now has a new File-menu "experience," which is Microsoft's goofy word for "screen." When you select one of the File menu's commands – Open, Save, Print, Share and so on – that File menu stays open, and the corresponding options for printing, saving or sharing appear in the main part of the window. It's a good idea; it feels like fewer steps. (Only the Options command violates the consistency; it opens the usual preferences dialogue box.)
There's animation, too. The insertion-point cursor seems to glide along as you type; highlighting seems to flow from one Excel cell to another. In PowerPoint, your slides change in real time as you point to different design templates (before you actually click); Excel does the same as you browse chart types.
Microsoft has also created an app store for Office. Most of the software bits here are free; for example, you can add new chart styles to Excel, Twitter feeds to Outlook or language translation dictionaries to Word. It's a sparse but intriguing catalogue.
Each of theses individual program has some new goodies, too. For example, Word can, after a moment of processing, open and save PDF documents. That's genuinely useful, but it doesn't work consistently. Some PDF documents open only as un-editable graphics — not as text — and some layouts shift quite a bit when converted to Word's format.
Whenever you open a document, a little clickable balloon offers to take you to the spot where you stopped last time, even it was on another device; very slick. There's also a Reading Mode, which lends any document a handsome, e-booklike layout.
In Excel, when you highlight some cells, a tiny tab button appears below and to the right. Click it to open a pop-up palette of relevant options: charting, formatting, totals and so on. Yes, these options are also on the Ribbon — but as you point to these, the formatting of your selected cells changes in real time. That way, you can try on the formatting without committing to anything.
PowerPoint's upgrades are similarly minor but welcome. For example, you can now snag a photo directly from your online Flickr or Facebook account, without having to download and save it first. And music that starts on one slide can now continue playing even as you move onto other slides.
In Outlook, the touch-ups include "inline replies": when you click Reply, you can type your response above the original message, without opening a new window. You can take a peek at your correspondents' Facebook or LinkedIn posts right there beneath their messages. The calendar now displays the weather for the next few days, so you'll know what to wear or pack. And you can now set up Hotmail and other Web-based e-mail accounts without needing add-on "connector" plug-ins.
Office is still enormous, complex and sprawling. It's still about 47,000 times more software than anybody really needs. And you can still manage perfectly well without it; Google and OpenOffice.org still offer free equivalents of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. They're not anywhere near as refined or feature-packed as Office 2013, but they get the job done, and they make collaboration easy. Fortunately, you'll soon find out where you stand; you can try Office 365, including downloading Office onto five Macs or PCs, for a month at no charge. You may find that the $100-a-year offer makes the Office value proposition even muddier than it was before — but you'll find the 2013 programs themselves to be speedy, attractive and very polished. (David Pogue/ The New York Times News Service)