The promise of Office 365 -- Microsoft's (MSFT) software as an annual subscription plan -- is that users get the latest version of the productivity suite without buying a new package. New versions and new features just "light up" on your PC as soon as they're released.
However, that concept hasn't delivered a ton of value, but after two years of waiting, subscribers are finally getting some new capabilities.
Office 2016, which launched last week, is Microsoft's first new release of Office since the Office 365 program started, and it's notable for one very important feature: The ability to perform real-time collaboration in Word, PowerPoint and, yes, even Excel.
Now, multiple users can all be working on the same document at the same time, and everyone sees changes happen in real time. Indeed, you don't just see the text changing, you see a small flag with the user's name, so it's obvious who is doing what.
To collaborate, all the interested parties must be using either Office 2016 or the free Office Online. When you start sharing, you must save your document to the cloud on Microsoft's OneDrive and then invite other people. You can optionally keep a collaboration pane open on the side of your document. It's a dashboard from which you can invite other collaborators, see everyone who is actively engaged in your file and even chat with them via Skype.
If all that sounds a bit like Microsoft is trying to woo Google (GOOG) users, you're right. This is unashamedly a play to mimic the effortless real-time collaboration in Google Docs, and it mostly works. When everything is firing on all cylinders, Office 2016 collaboration is seamless and elegant.
But it has enough complexity and wonkiness to remind you that you're still using a Microsoft product. The collaboration process is sometimes slow to start up, leaving you wondering why you can't see other users even though they're connected to your document.
And although you shouldn't be allowed to edit the same location as another user, I managed to do it once, which resulted in an annoying error message. Word repeatedly told me that "a document needs my attention," while offering no actionable guidance about what I was actually supposed to do to make the error message go away.
Likewise, Excel once refused to let me invite others to collaborate on an existing document with a vague error message, and there was no working around it. To start collaborating, I had to create a new spreadsheet from scratch.
Microsoft clearly sees collaboration as the tent-pole feature in Office 2016, but you'll find a number of other new tools here as well. For those who still -- 10 years later -- complain about the transition from menus to the ribbon interface, you'll now find a nondescript text box labeled "Tell me..." along with all the usual ribbon tabs. Type in what you're looking for (add a table, add watermark, change case or just about anything else that it's possible to do with Office), and you'll instantly be taken to that feature.
No longer do you need to know where a feature lives in the expansive ribbon.
And my earlier complaint about having to wait two years for Office to release a few feature to capitalize on the Office 365 subscription? That's apparently about to change. According to Microsoft, the Office team is changing its release cadence starting with Office 2016, delivering new features on an ongoing basis every few months instead of rolling them up into major releases every two to three years.
If you already subscribe to Office 365, you can install the update now. If not, you can purchase a subscription to Office 365 starting at $7 a month (for Office 365 Personal) or $10 a month (for Office 365 Home).
Photo courtesy Microsoft