Microsoft Office 15: Ready (and Not Ready) for Windows 8

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Windows 8, with its radically new touch-centric Metro interface, is all very interesting. But it’s not nearly as interesting as the applications that it will run–the ones that we’ll use to get real work done.

And one of the most interesting things about new apps will be how they address the tricky challenge of working well with a touch interface while also offering all the powerful features that are one of the primary reasons why people pick Windows PCs over alternatives.

No Windows apps matter more than the ones in Microsoft’s own Office suite. Microsoft, somewhat confusingly, is building a next-generation version of Office that doesn’t use the new Metro interface. Instead, the upcoming Office upgrade will feature conventional desktop applications, which run in Windows 8’s old-school desktop mode.

But ZDNet’s Mary-Jo Foley is reporting on evidence that Office 15 will feature a touch mode–presumably a finger-friendly interface that falls short of bringing Office entirely into Metroland.

In other words, Office may mirror the overall approach of Windows 8 itself. You’ll be able to use it in either a touch-centric mode or a more familiar one that assumes the presence of a physical keyboard and a mouse.

I don’t want to gripe too much about this. For one thing, we barely know any details at all about Office 15, so it’s impossible to form an opinion about whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.

For another, it was obvious all along that Microsoft wasn’t going to move Office to a Metro-only interface anytime soon. It’s going to be a long time until the average business PC runs Windows 8, and Microsoft needs to offer companies running Windows 7 (or even–gulp!–XP) an Office upgrade path.

It’s also conceivable that Microsoft is also working on a pure-Metro, Windows 8-only edition of Office that will exist alongside the desktop/”touch mode” one.

But if the immediate future of Office does involve a desktop app with some touch trimmings, it’s a reminder that even Microsoft isn’t ready to boldly go where Windows 8 wants applications to be. That’s going to make for a fractured experience. Anyone who upgrades to Windows 8 will live in a world that’s sort of new, and sort of old–for years to come.

Whenever I think about this transition, I think back to the migration from DOS to Windows. That took a decade, if you declare that it was complete the day that Microsoft shipped Windows 95. (And even then, lots of perfectly sensible people continued to run some DOS programs for at least a little bit longer.)

I don’t expect the Journey to Metro to take ten years…but it’s not going to happen overnight, either.

I wonder when Microsoft will be ready to declare that Office is a Metro product, period? Maybe by the time Windows 9 or Windows 10 is ready?