What is the new Office app for?

Getting back to what you were doing and finding out what documents you ought to be looking at sounds very much like putting SharePoint on every device.

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Windows 10 used to include an annoying little app called Get Office (designed to help you install Office) that was installed even if you already had Office installed, couldn't be uninstalled completely without running a PowerShell command and popped up adverts for the latest version of Office if you were using an older version. This evolved into the much more useful My Office app, which is more of an Office hub rather than a way to easily install the Office apps on a new PC or smartphone.

Over the course of 2019, that in its turn is getting replaced with the Office app, which will come on new PCs and at some point automatically replace My Office on a Windows 10 PC.

That's probably going to be when 1903 is installed, as the latest Insider builds enable the new app. If you want to try it out, you'll need to be on the Insider Fast Ring with at least build 18317 installed. If you can't find the Office app in the Start menu, install the My Office app from the Store and you'll get the new version. So, what's the difference?

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You can customise the Office app with the existing online themes.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

Get back

The new Office app is inspired by the hub at Office.com, where you can find all the Office web apps in one place, along with documents you've had open recently from OneDrive (and for commercial Office 365 users, a list of SharePoint sites and folders you've used recently in OneDrive for Business). Both of those are useful: 'word.com' and 'excel.com' don't go to Microsoft sites, and URLs like 'office.live.com/start/Word.aspx', 'www.onenote.com/notebooks' and 'sway.office.com' aren't particularly memorable (or consistent). Like linking to the official mobile apps, this is a way to ensure that users end up on the legitimate sites rather than phishing sites that might turn up in web search results.

The Office web extension is another quick way to get to the most common Office Online apps (Office.com has a longer list) and recent documents.

You can use the My Office app and the new Office app to launch the Office applications once they're installed (assuming you don't have them pinned to the Start menu or taskbar); again, it's always convenient to have a quick way of getting back to the last document you were working on, even if it was on a different device. It's certainly a better alternative to filling up your inbox by emailing yourself the most recent copy of the document.

My Office has some other useful tools that will be in the Office app, although they're not all there yet.

The home and business versions of Office 365 let you install Office on multiple PCs and Macs, and the account tab in My Office lets you see how many installs you've used up; that can save frustration if Office won't activate when you're setting up a new PC (and there's a link to the online account page where you can deprovision devices you're no longer using to reuse the licence elsewhere). You can also make sure the free Skype minutes that come with an Office 365 Home subscription are enabled and linked to your Skype account. Plus there are links to training and support, like the Office section of answers.microsoft.com.

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In the current version of the new Office app, the account link just opens a website; this is less useful because it doesn't even show the details about Office, just your Microsoft account, let alone the handy summary from My Office. We're hoping this will be updated soon as it makes the new app less useful than before.

You can still switch between a personal and business Office account if you have both, without having to sign out of your Microsoft account the way you do on Office.com (which signs you out on every Microsoft site). You do that by clicking on the user picture for your account rather than on the cog for Settings.

The new Office app will allow organisations to customise the support and training options, and to add links to non-Office line-of-business applications as long as those use single sign-on (which you can manage through premium Azure Active Directory subscriptions). Companies can also add their own branding to the app, suggesting that it's going to be a PWA underneath. That's not available yet, but business Office 365 users can choose one of fifty colour themes (which you may recognise from the online Office experience).

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Office 365 business users get more features in the Office app, like Search and Discover.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

In fact, the new Office app looks very much as if it's the modern SharePoint experience underneath (which would allow organisations to customise it using the existing SharePoint branding options). Instead of just a recent list of documents, everyone gets the same pivots that Office 365 business users have today on the Office.com site: they can pin files from the recent list and see files that other people have shared with them on OneDrive and SharePoint even if they haven't opened them before. This saves a lot of time digging through email for the message with the link for the document.

Explore, search and discover

Those options are already in the Office 2019 File Open experience, but for business Office 365 accounts the Office app will also end up with all three of Microsoft's tools for searching and discovering (which can seem confusingly similar at first).

The Discover pivot that business Office 365 users see on Office.com and in the Office app is the most basic level: it shows folders you've used recently, the SharePoint sites you visit most, and the ones you're following. If what you need isn't in the recent list, these are the most likely places you'd want to look.

Above that will be a new Recommended section, which isn't yet in the app: this will include documents that the Office Graph has identified as interesting or relevant to you because you're @ mentioned in them, or your comment has been replied to, or they're created by someone you collaborate a lot with, or they have keywords that are in a lot of your recent documents.

"They're not files you've necessarily touched or even files you know exist," director of product marketing for SharePoint and Yammer Dan Holme explained when it was announced for Office.com (it's not there yet, either). "This surfaces files that people around you are working on that you ought to know about. I use it to catch up with my team, to see what they're working on and to find anything I need to provide feedback on."

Those are the kinds of insights that are in the Office 365 Delve service, but you don't have to go to a separate site to see them, so you're more likely to actually spot them.

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Microsoft Search in the new Office app.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

Office 365 business users will also see a search box at the top of the Office app — the new unified Microsoft Search, which offers what Holme described as a personalised, intelligent 'zero query' search: "The goal is, when you click in that box, you might find what you're looking for without having to type anything; recommendations of apps, files, new sites that are likely to be useful to you."

That includes apps, SharePoint sites, documents, and people — your colleagues and later your contacts on LinkedIn: "it's not just what do you know, but who do you know and what do they know?" Holme said. It could include videos if your organisation uses Stream as part of Office 365, transcripts of the relevant five minutes of a meeting shared through Stream or teams, or VR and 360 content in SharePoint Spaces.

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If you do type something into the search, files stored on SharePoint or OneDrive include a thumbnail preview that you can click to zoom in on to get the snippet of text that includes the keyword you looked for. That means you can see if the file is what you're looking for without leaving your search, making it less likely that you'll get distracted from your work.

In the long run, this takes the Office app from a file menu to part of Microsoft's grand vision for what Holme calls "a more immersive, engaging, intelligent experience" for content collaboration. "The vision is to make sure that whatever device you're on and whatever app you're in, you can find the things you need to get started and to get back to work."

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The existing My Office app shows more information about your Office account than the new Office app.

Image: Mary Branscombe/TechRepublic

So far, it's still rather basic, and we're sad to see that the account information is less useful than in My Office. However, we expect to see it develop quickly — especially as the design of Office, the Office Graph, Microsoft Search and the collaboration vision are all slightly in flux. But if you really want to take advantage of it, consider how you're using SharePoint and the Office and third-party services that feed into Microsoft Search.

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By Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.