Microsoft Office 2016: Outlook cloudy

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The future of Office is in the cloud, and as Office 2016 evolves, it's Office 365 subscribers that will get the most benefit from new features.

A new release of Office usually means considering deployment plans, and working out how to upgrade a fleet of PCs and laptops...at least, it was with the old Office. Now the flagship of a new Microsoft, Office is leading Redmond's continuous delivery transformation. Throughout the several-months-long preview program, users were getting new builds every week -- and occasionally more often than that!

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Although Office 2016 retains much of the familiar Office ribbon user experience, things are very different under the hood.
Image: Tech Pro Research

That means that while it looks much the same, keeping much of the familiar Office ribbon user experience, things are very different under the hood with this, the second major Office 365 release of Office. Office 2013 received regular updates as part of an Office 365 subscription, and the same is going to be true of Office 2016. Once you accept the invitation in an existing Office 365 instance, you'll start the process of automatically updating Office 2013 to Office 2016 across your tenant. If you want to trial it with certain users in advance of a full roll-out, then you can opt a subset into Office 365's First Release program, giving them advance access to the latest builds.

A standalone Office install is still available, but it's clear that Microsoft is encouraging users to move to its cloud platform as there's a significant price increase for the standalone version. It's also making certain key features, like Office's cloud-mediated collaboration, dependent on Office 365 features, using either OneDrive or OneDrive for Business as its shared document hub. You'll also still get the option of a client-only subscription if you don't need cloud services, although again you won't get access to Office 2016's cloud features.

Groups

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One key new feature in Office 365, and in connected copies of Outlook 2016, is Groups. Designed to support ad hoc group collaboration around projects, Groups can be created inside Outlook, adding a shared inbox and calendar, file storage and a collaborative OneNote notebook. Free apps for mobile devices simplify access to Group content, so you don't need a PC to collaborate, and as they're cross-platform, you can use them to collaborate outside your organization.

That makes Office 2016's cross-platform options the main reason to pull the trigger on an upgrade. A new Mac OS release gives your users the option of choosing to have Office on either Windows PCs or Macs. There's also support for improved mobile versions, which are free on small-screen devices with most of the editing features of their larger siblings. If you're using a larger-screen device, like an iPad Pro, you're going to need an Office 365 account, as Microsoft uses screen size to determine whether a licence is required or not.

The Mac: a first-class citizen

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Mac OS gets near feature parity in a Mac-specific version of Office 2016, including a version of Outlook 2016.
Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Mobile isn't the only area where cross-platform features are being added. Microsoft has long had Macintosh Office software, but it's lagged the Windows releases in terms of features and capabilities. As part of the current wave of Office releases, Mac OS gets near feature parity in a Mac-specific version of Office 2016, including a version of Outlook 2016. Like the Windows applications, the Mac version of the Office 2016 suite is designed to work with cloud services, and has deep integration with OneDrive and OneDrive for Business.

Office in the cloud

Cloud is at the heart of Office 2016, even with standalone boxed copies. That means you'll need to consider the security features that come with higher-end Office 365 subscriptions, which add support for compliance and information-protection tooling, as well as giving you access to built-in eDiscovery features. Office 365 also provides management tooling, and you can also use Azure Active Directory as a framework for controlling access to your cloud services.

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To get the most from Excel 2016's business intelligence tools you'll now need a subscription to Power BI, which offloads working with large data sets to the cloud.
Image: Microsoft

Office 365 isn't the only Microsoft cloud service that works with Office 2016. To get the most from Excel 2016's business intelligence tools you'll now need a subscription to Power BI, which offloads working with large data sets to the cloud. You'll also get access to a set of design tools, so end users can create their own reports and queries. New graph types in Excel should help visualise different classes of data, including support for tree views, although again many of the Excel analytic tools need an appropriate Office 365 subscription.

One thing to note: If you've been using InfoPath, it's no longer part of the Office bundle. That's not a surprising change: Microsoft has been focusing on moving its forms offering away from XML, and with pen and HTML5 forms support in both IE 11 and Edge, there's little need for a dedicated forms application. Unless you're wanting to support legacy code, you'll need to consider alternatives for existing forms, either converting them to web formats or using Adobe's PDF-based Document Cloud.

Choosing an Office 365 option over a standalone Office release makes a lot more sense in the light of Office's continuous release model. Monthly updates will add new features to the Office 2016 tools, as well integrating with additional cloud services like the upcoming Enterprise Data Protection services. There's also access to the Office Store, where you can share your business's custom Office apps built using a cross-platform HTML5/JavaScript development platform.

Choosing an Office

For most businesses the question isn't going to be which version of Office to buy, but which version of Office 365. With Office 2016, you'll find the Office 365 plans familiar, although there are changes at the high end with the replacement of the E4 plan with a new E5 option. Focused around the Skype for Business service, it offers a cloud-hosted replacement for an on-premises PBX, giving users dial-in and out access from the Skype for Business app.

It's clear that the future of Office is in the cloud, and as Office 2016 evolves, it's Office 365 subscribers that will get the most benefit from new features. Outside the familiar Office suite, new tools like Sway and Delve use the cloud to share information and to explore data users have built up, while Yammer and Groups provide frameworks for formal and ad hoc collaboration. With versions for small Windows tablets, for iOS, Android and Mac, as well as full-blown Windows PCs, Office 2016 is certainly worth the upgrade: it's just up to you to decide which of the many Office 365 plans is right for your business.

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