When Microsoft Windows 8 makes its debut in October, the latest version of Microsoft Office is expected to follow on its coattails.
If you want a sneak peak, you can download Microsoft Office 2013 Customer Preview, but be prepared for a shock. The new version is very different, even if you're currently using Office 2010.
For starters, the ribbon interface has been tweaked to work equally well with touch-screen, stylus, mouse or keyboard, and a new radial menu in OneNote makes it easy to access features with your finger.
If you're not sure what "cloud computing" means, Office 2013 is a crash course. Office 2013 saves documents to cloud storage (SkyDrive) by default, so your content is always available across your tablet, PC and phone. If you want to save files to the local drive, you have to make a conscious effort to do so.
Three cloud-based Office subscription services will be offered (Office 365 Home Premium, Office 365 Small Business Premium, and Office 365 ProPlus), but pricing information hasn't been disclosed. When available, each new subscription offer will include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access.
Once signed-in, your personalized settings, including your most recently used files, templates and even your custom dictionary, roam with you across virtually all of your devices. Office even remembers where you last left off and brings you right back to that spot in a single click.
Furthermore, your software is always up to date. "Patch Tuesday" is a thing of the past, and the new Office also comes with Skype. When you subscribe, you get 60 minutes of Skype World Minutes every month.
Notable improvements can be found throughout the suite. New "Presenter View" in PowerPoint privately shows current and upcoming slides, presentation time, and speaker notes in a single glance. You can zoom, mark-up, and re-order your slides -- in mid-presentation!
Microsoft Word finally gets the ability to open PDF-format documents and edit them. The edited documents can then be saved in PDF or Word document format.
Embedding images, videos, and other objects in Word documents is easier than ever before, and a new "Read Mode" displays documents like an e-reader. If the computer has a touch-screen, you can actually turn the pages with your fingertips.
Users of legacy versions of Windows -- including Windows Vista -- aren't invited to the party. Office 2013 will only install on Windows 7 or Windows 8.
You can, however, install the Office 2013 Customer Preview on up to 5 devices, including Macs, PCs, phones, and tablets. The package also includes up to 7GB of SkyDrive cloud storage.
Microsoft Office 2013 Customer Preview is available for free at Microsoft.com/office/preview.
Hotmail gets badly needed makeover
Microsoft's Hotmail has been around for 14 years. Although the free email service reportedly has more subscribers worldwide than either Google Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, it has always struck me as the "Rodney Dangerfield" of the lot.
Well, Microsoft is out to change this. Earlier this month, Hotmail was re-launched as Outlook.com, and its mission is clear: crush Gmail!
Microsoft has created a clean new user interface inspired by Windows Phone and soon-to-debut Windows 8. Gone are the garish banner ads and search boxes that marred Hotmail, replaced by subtler advertising and cool features.
The new interface is also pretty smart, and the allowable file size for a single attachment is much larger than with Gmail. Presentation of attached files is based on content. For example, multiple images are automatically presented as a slide show, video clips launch Windows Media Player, and so forth.
Skydrive is also available to send very large attachments. If an attached file exceeds Outlook's size limit, the web client will automatically upload it to Skydrive, where you can share it securely as a link, without having to worry about exceeding the size limits imposed by your ISP or your recipient's.
If you are a Facebook subscriber, the Outlook address book downloads photos from your friends and displays their pics, instead of just names. You can also initiate Skype calls directly from the new client.
Reports say it took just six hours for a million users to sign-up for Outlook.com, but the stampede might not have been due to the new web client's tight integration with Twitter, Facebook, and Skype or impressive spam-fighting tools.
Outlook.com subscribers can migrate their existing Hotmail accounts or select a new name, and the opportunity afforded by the latter did not go unnoticed.
Suppose that years ago John Doe had to settle for JADoe1971@hotmail.com as a Hotmail address, because JDoe@hotmail.com or JohnDoe@hotmail.com were already taken. When Outlook.com launched, John might have been able to claim JDoe@Outlook.com or JohnD@Outlook.com.
Any name was up for grabs. Reports say someone quickly snapped up SteveBallmer@Outlook.com, and it wasn't Microsoft's CEO. If you ever wanted an easier-to-remember or more personal email address, now's your chance, but don't drag your heels. The land rush is on!
Microsoft has also made it easier to migrate from Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or Exchange email accounts. If desired, you can configure Outlook.com as a central repository for all your email accounts.
According to its sign-up page, Outlook.com is a "preview." Gmail, you might recall, was in beta for years before Google finally took it live. There is no indication that Microsoft will try the same tactic. The final version is expected soon, most likely during the launch of Windows 8.
Regardless, Outlook.com behaves like a finished product, so if you've been looking for a new, free email service, check out Outlook.com. It's a far cry from Hotmail.