IF YOU'RE an office worker, you're probably an Office worker too, since more than 1-billion people are estimated to use Microsoft's productivity suite. The new features of Office 2013 unveiled this week show Microsoft is targeting a wider audience of cloud dwellers in danger of floating off to rivals such as Apple and Android.
It may seem hard to think of getting touchy-feely with a spreadsheet or sociable with a word processor but a more connected, collaborative, mobile, app-ified version of Microsoft Office seems set on converting us to new ways of working.
Apple has already led the way with its Pages, Numbers and Keynote iWork applications converted for the iPad, while Google's Gmail, Calendar and Docs have persuaded many consumers to work in a web browser and store their information in the cloud.
I have been trying Office 2013 - the first version of Office to be optimised for touchscreens and tablets - on a Samsung slate running a preview version of Windows 8. While the new operating system goes on sale on October 26 as a $40 upgrade, there is no date or pricing as yet for the launch of the new version of Office. Confusingly, Microsoft is also pointing consumers towards a browser-based subscription version called Office 365 in the interim.
Just like Windows 8, Office 2013 switches between computing concepts. It is a regular PC program, although it looks like a series of apps on the home screen of my tablet - 12 squares on the tiled interface, representing each element of the suite.
Tapping on one opens it up in the familiar Windows desktop that lies beneath the surface of the tiled home screen. But - back to the tablet app concept again - the program looks much cleaner and clearer than previous versions, and in a larger format that is suited to touching options to select them. The familiar swiping and pinch-to-zoom gestures of touchscreens are there as well.
This is far different from my previous attempts at trying Office 2010 on a Windows 7 tablet - that was telescoped badly into the smaller screen and trying to use touch to make selections was fiddly and unsatisfying.
There are many new features in the 12 programs within Office 2013, but I have focused on the highlights of the main ones.
. Word Reading Mode allows you to swipe through and read documents more readily in an e-book fashion, while Live Layout makes it easy to use fingers to resize and reposition photos and other items, much like Apple's Pages for the iPad.
. Excel Flash Fill makes it easier to automate filling out columns. Quick Analysis allows you to hover over data and get suggestions for the best way of formatting the information in tables and charts.
. PowerPoint: There is greater emphasis on how users deliver their presentations in practice. For instance, it is easier to zoom in on slides using a tablet and highlight sections with a digital pen. A "cockpit" mode allows the presenter to see what slide is coming up next, and a timer helps keep things on schedule.
. OneNote: Microsoft seems to think the time has finally come for this under-used note-taking program. Among a number of features to facilitate this, the most eye-catching is a circular "radial menu" that makes it much easier to change formatting.
Meanwhile, more generally, logging into a Windows Live account allows all documents to be saved automatically to your Skydrive account in the cloud, making them accessible from any device. If you are working in a team, new social and collaborative tools have been added for easy sharing and Microsoft's Skype acquisition has been integrated for video conferencing.
Although my test version had a few bugs that need to be ironed out before the launch, the new Office promises to become a key differentiator for Microsoft on tablets. Its slick suite of essential applications could be the main reason why businesses and consumers in general might choose a Windows-based tablet rather than the iPad or Android versions.
ASK THE TECH EXPERT
THE PROBLEM: With so many wireless gadgets in my household (and guests bringing in more), how do I prevent IP address clashes?
THE ANSWER: Every network-connected device has a unique address - usually assigned automatically from a choice of thousands - and yet clashes still happen. You can reduce the odds by assigning fixed IP addresses to some of your devices in your router's settings. Windows and the Mac operating system have repair tools you can use to reset your system when this problem occurs.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited