Writing about Microsoft Office isn’t like reviewing a product; it’s more like writing a school science paper on “The Air Around Us.” Office is so ubiquitous and so dominant in its category that, as with Google for search or Adobe Photoshop for image editing, the suite’s Excel, PowerPoint, and Word have become shorthand for spreadsheet, presentation, and word processing apps.
As far as corporate offices go, a product manager for a would-be rival (Lotus SmartSuite, now long gone) once told me, competing with Office wasn’t like trying to compete with Xerox or Konica Minolta copiers. It was like trying to compete with copier paper.
The metaphors aren’t exact, however. While there are no substitutes for air or copier paper, home office workers can choose from several alternatives to Office, with features ingenious enough to merit a look or keep Microsoft on its toes. I’ll be surveying them, focusing on Windows rather than Mac or handheld apps, in a four-part series to run every other week in this space. But I’ll begin today with Microsoft’s monster, specifically, with the confusing truth that there are more ways to get Office than there are websites to book a hotel room.
You can buy Office 2016 the way most of us used to buy most of our software: as a one-time purchase you install on one PC and receive support and bug fixes, but not upgrades to future versions. Spend $149.99 for Office Home & Student 2016 and you get Excel, PowerPoint, Word, and the OneNote digital note-taking and free-form content collecting and searching program. Office Home & Business 2016 ($229.99) adds the Outlook email, calendar, and contacts manager, while Office Professional 2016 ($399.99) throws in Microsoft’s Publisher desktop publishing and Access database apps.
However, today’s preferred way to get the Office 2016 apps is via a subscription service called Office 365, which promises you’ll always have the freshest upgrades and features plus storage space on Microsoft’s servers and a license for the handheld Office versions such as Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers. Office 365 Personal ($6.99 per month or $69.99 per year) combines licenses for one PC or Mac, one tablet, and one phone with 1 TB of Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage.
The web is also where Microsoft has encountered its stiffest competition to the Office franchise in the last decade, from other players adopting the browser-based, subscription software deployment model. In the productivity space, two big names fiving Microsoft headaches are Google’s G Suite and Zoho Docs.
The most popular choice for users who have both a laptop and a desktop, or a home office colleague or two, is Microsoft Office 365 Home, which ups the ante to five PCs or Macs, five tablets, five phones, and 1 TB of storage per user. Both versions also give you access to the free, browser-based Office Online apps if you need to make some quick edits from another system.
Officially, if you’re running a small to midsize business (SMB) with several employees, the product for you is Office 365 Business ($8.25 per user per month). Or, if you’re not satisfied with your internet service provider’s or web host’s email, you should choose Office 365 Business Premium, which adds email with a 50GB mailbox and HD videoconferencing support for $12.50 per user per month. But, as long as you’re in a home office rather than an office building, I’d take advantage of Office 365 Home’s superior value.
Share and Share a Lot
So, with all of those options out of the way, what does Office have to offer? Two things: some state-of-the-art, deeply powerful apps and some impressive capabilities for team collaboration. The latter may not be a priority for solo home office workers, but it is a good example of Microsoft’s multiple-choice approach: You can share a file or folder with read-only or edit rights via email or a cut-and-paste link from OneDrive, via a link generated by an Outlook message, or set up multi-user editing with version tracking. You can even Skype audio or video chat between collaborators within Office. Civilian OneDrive shades into Business accounts’ OneDrive for Business, which shades into the enterprise-ready SharePoint.
Editing with one person using Office Online and another using desktop Office proved painfully slow. And, at one point, I was nonplussed when, after prompting me to start the sharing process by saving a local file to OneDrive, Word exited altogether. But Microsoft has clearly made teamwork a top priority.
Ditto for finding information within and about Office. A Bing-based Smart Lookup feature pops up Wikipedia and dictionary definitions of words or phrases, while a “Tell me what you want to do” line above the user interface (UI) ribbon suggests program features as you type queries (though the latter isn’t psychic; I stumped it with “put a box around a paragraph” when I should have typed “put a border”).
As for the components of the suite, they range from invaluable, undisputed champions of their categories to apps about which few users actually care that much. Access and Publisher fall into the latter category, and not just because they’re unavailable for Mac.
I have a soft spot for Microsoft’s page layout program, which has changed little since Office 2010, because it’s relatively easy to use and I once relied on it to create newsletters. But today’s professionals ignore it in favor of the much more capable Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress. Access remains a powerful if unintuitive way to create heavyweight relational database apps (I’m not sure there is such a thing as an intuitive way to create relational database apps.)
A step higher on the desirability ladder are two freeware tools. Sway is a simple, presentation/webpage maker that lets you arrange files, images, links, media, and text. It’s also got a Remix button, which artistically rearranges the objects into a scrolling or step-by-step storyboard stored in the cloud.
OneNote provides team-friendly notebooks divided into sections containing typed (or tablet-scribbled, audio or video-recorded, or web-clipped) snippets. Like its archrival Evernote, it’s handy for taking notes during a class or the minutes of a meeting or just organizing your to-do items and random thoughts. Windows 10 users, however, will be puzzled to find two versions of the app on their systems, dubbed OneNote 2016 and just OneNote. The former has more features; the latter is gaining new features every month; the overlap is baffling.
That leaves the big three, or three and a half counting Outlook, which remains a strong if sort of middle-of-the-road email, tasks, contacts, and calendar manager—although the new list of recently used files that appears when you click to add an attachment is handy. PowerPoint arguably trails Apple’s Keynote by half a step in the race to make the snazziest slideshows, but it’s still a presentation powerhouse. It contains plenty of ways to organize your slides and notes, apply transitions and animations, and add charts, images, or multimedia. It’s also surprisingly easy to use.
Similarly, Corel WordPerfect die-hards insist that their favorite program tops Word 2016 for ultra-precise control of formatting and some specialized document types such as legal pleadings. But Microsoft’s word processor is a super-powered standard; it shines at using styles and themes for quick, consistent formatting of text and at handling footnotes and references (in a choice of APA, Chicago, MLA, and other styles). My only gripe about it is that some functions are inevitably buried several menus deep (the File Options menu is particularly encyclopedic) despite the interface ribbon and its hover tips.
Finally, there’s Excel, the most dominant app in a dominant suite, which is simply the only spreadsheet that matters. Its charts are both handsome and useful, such as the new visual forecasts that project the future based on existing data or specialties such as sunburst or Pareto charts. Its dialog boxes guide you through once-arcane operations such as creating pivot tables, while an arsenal of add-ons, plug-ins, and business analytics and reporting dashboards link it to everything from Google Analytics to MailChimp.
Whether you call it Office 365 or Office 2016, Microsoft’s suite sets a formidable example for other productivity solutions. It’s hard not to call it the first $100 that should go into your home office’s annual budget, but we’ll see how some alternatives stack up in the rest of this series.
What’s your favorite part of Office? What drives you crazy about it? Have you tried any of its challengers such as Google Drive or LibreOffice? Let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.