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Will Windows 10’s universal apps make Office 2016 the suite we’ve been waiting for?

Recent coverage of Windows 10 has left many a computer geek ruminating about the shortfalls of the current Windows operating system. Not only did the Windows 8 OS upgrade leave us wanting but (even though it wasn’t technically part of the update) so did mobile versions of Office. Those of us looking forward to manipulating Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and OneNote across computers, tablets and smartphones were left disappointed.

A lot of hoopla was made over the “metro style” flat and less-cluttered interfaces, and yes the new apps were attractive; their design matched the new Windows 8 touch overlay, for the most part. However, as was the case with the latest Windows itself, while the mobile Office app’s interfaces looked good, the apps weren’t all that robust on mobile devices, and their touch capabilities were lacking. You can’t even swipe your finger to select a group of cells or a block of text in Excel or Word!

This time, though, the new mobile Office apps will be “universal,” in that the code will work across multiple devices, and they will be available for free on smartphones and small tablets. What does that mean for Windows and Office users?

Where’s the touch?

Windows 8 promised a touch-friendly, and in turn more touch-friendly Office apps. However, in addition to spotty touch support, the integration between the mobile apps and the desktop software was quite limited, to the point that often you could do little more than edit text and formatting. For example, in the current mobile version of Word, you can’t even use the Review, Accept, Reject, and Track Changes collaborative features.

Related: Microsoft announces Outlook app for Android and iOS

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Microsoft

Cross-compatible “universal” apps would essentially let users work with Office apps that behave the same across platforms—from phones to computers. At a recent Windows 10 preview Microsoft Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore demonstrated, among several other universal app features, some cross-compatibility in Word for Windows 10 and PowerPoint for Windows 10.

While it looks like we’ll actually see a more touchable and mobile-compatible Microsoft Office before too long, it’s important to point out that Microsoft claimed (or at least hinted strongly) that we would see much of this increased functionality with Windows 8 and that round of Office apps. Can the company be trusted to deliver this time?

More than universal

According to Microsoft’s Belfiore universal apps are “a version of Office for Windows 10 built for touch screens and predistributed on small devices.” In addition, universal apps will likely be limited in power and features, compared to desktop versions, for a number of reasons, including screen size. Desktop software not only has quicker hardware to take advantage of, but desktop apps can also use the .Net Framework, which provides developers with much more functionality. Such as, say, developing features for the Ribbon Bar.

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Most users probably understand (and forgive) that, compared to full-blown desktop systems, mobile devices have limitations. But that doesn’t absolve Microsoft for giving us such puny apps for our smartphones and small tablets. To rectify that, Microsoft has promised a slew of new functionality, including the following:

  • MS Office: Touch-ready mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, and OneNote
  • Word app: Create, mark-up, review, comment in documents, share and collaborate
  • Word app: A Read mode provides access to online resources such as Web references
  • Excel app: Swiping to select cells and perform formatting, such as creating charts
  • Outlook app: Support for touch, as well as swiping to select, sort, and archive your email
  • Outlook app: Uses Word as built-in word processor
  • PowerPoint app: An “Ink” feature allows real-time annotating of slides

That’s just what we know right now. More will likely come to light as Microsoft talks more about Windows 10 for smartphones.

Related: Windows Phone is dead, Windows 10 will be the cross-device replacement 

And, as mentioned, Microsoft says it will preinstall Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook on Windows 10 smartphones and small tablets—for free. The apps will also be available for download from Windows Store, for tablets, hybrids and convertible mobiles devices with larger screens.

As for the desktop version, apparently it is taking its own course and is currently slated for release toward the end of this year, under the name of Office 2016. In fact, both the desktop and mobile apps will be ready about the same time as Windows 10, late-2015. (The first glimpse of universal apps will come much sooner, though—as early as next month, with the Windows 10 Technical Preview.) In the meantime, from what we’ve seen so far, Office 2016 might be just as welcome an upgrade as Windows 10.