Excel Live
Image: Microsoft

One of the more interesting technologies rolling out from Microsoft is a new platform for building collaborative apps, the Fluid Framework. It allows users to collaborate on documents in real time, using document containers to embed collaborative content and applications inside web pages and web views. After a few years of development and a handful of trial apps, we’re now seeing it start to ship in various Office products.

Fluid Framework is what powers the Loop components that are appearing in Outlook, as well as the Live Share application tools in Teams. It’s a way for applications to share state, managing updates as they come in so that there is a common view of a document that updates as changes are made and without having to implement complex locking to prevent issues. As it’s built around web technologies, Fluid is intended for hosted browser content or apps that run inside the browser.

Embedding applications and work in Microsoft Teams

Excel live collaboration graphic
Excel Live is part of the span of ways to collaborate in Teams. Image: Microsoft

If you’ve got a Microsoft 365 subscription, you can get a feel for how Fluid works using the Loop components in the web version of Outlook, which can be edited by anyone who gets an email with them embedded in the message. However, where Fluid really shines is inside Teams, turning it from a place for meetings and chat, to a host for collaboration, sharing applications and views with colleagues and allowing them to interact with your content. As Teams is built on web technologies, it’s easy for Fluid to be built in, and for Fluid to be used in many different applications.

The first embedded Teams Office application was PowerPoint Live, a way of presenting that allows more interaction. However, it’s still very much a one-to-many tool, with improvements in how you can move from presenter to presenter and adding a live reaction-based chat alongside the presentation for dynamic feedback. Accessed from a meeting’s Share drop down, it’s easy to use and a lot more effective than hit-and-miss screen sharing.

Microsoft is taking that concept a step further with the announcement of Excel Live in Satya Nadella’s keynote at its Inspire 2022 event. It’s a feature that looks set to shake up how we work in teams and how we use documents in meetings.

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How to use Excel Live

Up to now, the best way to collaborate around Excel spreadsheets was to have the file saved in OneDrive, opened on every collaborator’s desktop, with the lead sharing their screen over Teams. Changes were slow to make, and it was very easy for conflicts to arise, with the lead having to back out changes and guide the team to making agreed fixes. For productivity software it wasn’t very productive.

Excel Live aims to change that, like PowerPoint Live, by building Excel into the Teams environment and using Fluid to connect each users’ instance of the sheet. While under the hood there’s a hefty software infrastructure, for users it’s very easy to use.

When you’re in a meeting and want to share a spreadsheet for editing, to edit formulas or drop in provisional numbers, you can quickly open an Excel workbook using the same Share tool as PowerPoint Live. Scroll down and you’re presented with a list of recent workbooks, ready to share. Open the one you want to use, and you’ll be asked to share it to your meeting. This opens the workbook inside the Teams meeting, with everyone’s video still visible and with the shared spreadsheet visible to everyone.

As Excel Live is being rendered using the same technology that runs Excel Online there’s no need for users to have a copy, so as long as you can run Teams you can edit a spreadsheet. Usefully if you’re using Excel on the web, you can use it to launch an Excel Live session from inside a spreadsheet, by choosing Work together in Teams from Excel’s Share menu. This opens a Teams meeting, where you can invite attendees with the spreadsheet open and ready to edit.

That’s a useful feature, building on the ad-hoc collaboration features in Teams. You might not always have an agenda or a plan for a meeting, only to discover that the numbers you need aren’t up to date or that you need a subject matter expert when designing a new set of calculations and want to run your work past them.

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When can you use Excel Live?

Excel Live will launch as a preview towards the end of August 2022, and users will need to ensure their Teams tenants are enrolled in the preview program. Set a policy in the Teams admin center to either follow users’ Office Preview settings or to enable access to Teams previews to any user. Users who have opted in to the Office Preview program will automatically get access to Excel Live when it launches once they have set up Teams to support previews, while other users will need to request access to previews inside their Teams app settings.

It’s not clear when Excel Live will be generally available, but the preview should help users get ready for how it can help teams collaborate around documents. It’s a good idea to start with a small trial at first, expanding access to the preview as one learns how it can help organizations and how it works across a mix of corporate and consumer networks.

As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in his Inspire keynote, “We need to be great at sync, async, in-person and remote collaboration. In a previous era, you could get away with one or two of these quadrants, but now we need all four quadrants to be excellent at any given time for work to be done and collaboration to happen.”

It’s clear from both the Build announcements and these new features, that Microsoft sees it as a place to host more than snippets of work driven by bots. With Excel Live you will be able to collaborate on spreadsheets in a way that’s not supported in the desktop app, supporting both in-office meetings using large screens and home workers on their laptops.

Nadella’s conclusion from his keynote sums up what the launch of Excel Live means for businesses and users. “If Teams is where we work, we will want to access everything right there in the flow of work, giving back our most scarce resource, our time.”

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