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Office for Mac 2016 Preview: New Looks Without Much Substance

So Microsoft has amply demonstrated that the company is not ignoring the Mac any longer. On Thursday, the first Office for Mac 2016 Preview appeared, with new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, One Note and Outlook. Since a complete preview of Office 2016 for Windows has yet to show up, it does seem as if we’re at platform parity after all these years. Indeed, Microsoft is at last paying more attention to other platforms, witness the release of Office for iPad some time back, and a public preview of Office for Android, and there’s not a touch version of Office for Windows out quite yet.

I gather Microsoft’s new marketing plan is to accept Office 365 subscriptions regardless of platform, so long as the money is good. But the Office for Mac beta is free, and you’ll get free updates until it’s released; it’ll expire 30 days later. After that, the final version will require an Office 365 subscription, or a regular software license.

No matter, isn’t it curious that OS X and iOS users are getting first digs at new Office releases faster than Windows users? Also, an Android version is being beta tested. This is quite unlike Microsoft’s traditional practice, which was to release Mac apps months or years after the Windows version, usually with fewer features and worse performance.

The new versions, however, will supposedly be interoperable among all platforms, including the enhanced collaboration features that seem to be the most important changes.

If you want to compare the Office upgrade to the number of enhancements routinely added to iWork, it comes up short, although the former has far more native features. Office for Mac requires OS X Yosemite, which allows Microsoft to focus on a user interface that combines some Windows conventions with a true Mac look and feel. In this case, it’s the thinner, flatter theme of Yosemite. Since more than 50% of Macs have been updated to OS 10.10 so far, I suppose that’s a good thing. If you use an older OS on your Mac, whether because of choice or compatibility, you’ll be stuck using Office 2011 so long as it’s supported.

But by emphasizing the interface, Microsoft appears to be taking the same tact as they did with the notorious Office 2001 for Mac upgrade, which was mostly about making it compatible with OS X. The feature enhancements were otherwise slight, but Microsoft didn’t give you a discount for a mostly compatibility-driven upgrade.

At least if you have an active Office 365 license, you’ll get Office 2016, Mac or Windows, as part of the package, so maybe it won’t make you feel you’ve been ripped off.

But as you go through the apps that make up the suite, you won’t see so many significant charges.

So Microsoft is making a big deal about hype over substance. We know, for example, that Office 2016 for Mac is “Unmistakably Office,” as the result of the ribbon, cross-platform features and keyboard shortcuts. “Designed for Mac,” describes the Yosemite interface, although some features of OS X, such as Auto Save and Versions, aren’t supported. This is supposedly due to the lack of compatibility with Microsoft One Drive. The “Cloud connected” capability is about OneDrive, OneDrive for Business and SharePoint. iCloud isn’t mentioned. But Retina displays are now supported.

Typical of the slim roster of improvements, aside from enhanced collaboration tools, Word has a Format Object task pane that handles pictures, shapes and effects.

Excel’s enhancements are mostly about consistent keyboard shortcuts across platforms and analyzing and visualizing your data. PowerPoint brings improved animations and coauthoring capabilities. What this means is that it’ll be pretty easy for even new users to follow online training guides to get up to speed.

If you’re currently using OneNote, Microsoft’s digital note-book app, you’ll get the version that’s already been released. The public beta for the Outlook email/contact manager was made available a few months ago for Office 365 subscribers, but there appear to have been some performance improvements. And, after several years, you no longer get “port attribute” errors when you run Keychain First Aid in Keychain Access after adding your email accounts to Outlook. Finally!

I’ve had ongoing problems getting attuned to Outlook, and I suppose it’s best used by those who work on Outlook for Windows, and/or encounter holes in Apple Mail’s implementation of Microsoft Exchange support. That Outlook’s contact lists appear to exist separate from Apple’s is not a good approach. It forces you to make a choice rather than ensure compatibility.

All in all, if you require Office for your job, the promise of mostly consistent versions for OS X, Windows, iOS and Android will make it all the more convenient to use these apps without worrying about your platform choices.

But it’s not as easy is that. There are open source Office suites for the major computing platforms that work reasonably well in translating Office documents. Google Apps is relatively lightweight when it comes to features, but most of you don’t really need all that Office offers.

The one promising development is performance. Office for Mac, while still a beta, doesn’t feel near as sluggish as previous versions. It almost feels lightweight. But it’s also clear Microsoft is running out of ideas, since there aren’t a whole lot of new features to consider. If you’re an Office 365 subscriber, or you’re on a long-term Office contract, it won’t matter. You’ll get the new version free of charge. But those have to pay an upgrade fee after the public beta process is over should think twice whether it’s really worth it, and that is the biggest problem with Microsoft’s curious upgrade priorities that seem to favor form over substance.