Office Sway Preview

Office Sway Preview

A new and different Office app

I'm obviously a bit behind on covering Office Sway, the first major new Office app—I guess—in quite a while. I had been briefed about Sway before Microsoft disclosed it last week, but my initial report was lost in all the madness around the Windows Technical Preview and the resulting travel. Not helping matters, Office Sway isn't yet publicly available. Instead, you need to apply to gain early access.

So here's what's happening.

Last week, Microsoft announced Office Sway. Sway is an app, of sorts, though the initial preview version is (or will be) available only on the web (a "web app," as it were). The first native app, which will follow the web app, will be for iOS. Which is sure to further endear Microsoft to those who don't like to see it supporting other platforms before Windows.

So we're already in weird territory here. Office, one of Microsoft's longest-running platforms, has historically focused on Windows, of course. And here is Microsoft adding a new Office "app." And it's for the web, historically a second-class citizen. And for iOS. Which doesn't really need any further explanation.

I feel like I've beaten the "mobile first, cloud first" topic to death, but the summary is simple enough: Get over it.

The weirdness continues past that little bit of discomfort, however. As a new productivity solution for end users, Office Sway is indeed something new, and hard to explain. And the things you create with it, in lieu of documents (Word), spreadsheets (Excel) or presentations (PowerPoint), are called ... sways.

Ugh.

I will try to get past that one myself, but suffice to say I've not heard a more terrible word for something since Jensen Harris tried to explain to me that the Charms in Windows 8 were not a toolbar or "bar," they were just ... "Charms."

Ugh. And involuntary shudder. Let's move on.

So what is this thing really? According to Microsoft's Michael Atalla, Sway is a "net new app" for Office, an authoring app, just like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. That it is a new Office app is significant enough, of course, but Sway also embraces the "mobile first, cloud first" era at Microsoft by reimagining what it means to create content in today's world. It is both an app ("mobile first") and a service ("cloud first").

As such, Sway can be iterated quickly, and based on the rough quality of this initial release—which, again, no one can actually access quite yet—it will need to be iterated early and often. The Office team has proven that they're up to the challenge.

"Sway is designed to take ideas and content and make them beautiful," Atalla told me, "and then they can be quickly shared." It can include text, photos and videos. It frees the creator from having to master layout and design; instead, Sway handles that for you. This is actually a profound feature in its own right, as anyone who has struggled with, say, the templates in PowerPoint can tell you.

"Sway creates sways," he continued, losing me momentarily. "A single sway is not a container. You can't email it. Instead, sways are cloud born and resident. It's an Azure service that contains the content but not necessarily the sway itself. Instead, Sway creates a new sway for each device, so it always looks great." What that means is that if you load a sway on a PC or tablet, it will be generated dynamically to look right on that device. But if you load it on a smart phone, it will be generated dynamically to look right on that device.

Before I ever saw Sway in action, I noted that this sounded a bit like some tools I had used, like Nokia Storyteller, or the Google+ Stories feature, both of which turn personal photos and videos into interactive "stories" (for lack of a better term) that go well beyond the traditional photo slideshow. Atalla agreed there some similarities, though Sway is more comprehensive and is designed to work with much more than just photos and videos.

And it's also different from Office Mix, which is a Microsoft solution for extending PowerPoint into "cloud first, mobile first" by creating cloud-hosted presentations that are interactive rather than static.

"Sway is a new way to author content," he told me. "PowerPoint requires that the author have design instincts, but Sway is beautiful from the beginning. It will do the design for you, and it transcends the distinctions between consumers and businesses. This impacts the broadest set of users imaginable, and anyone will be able to create high quality output with Sway. It smartly designs output for you."

I'm going to write more about the specifics of Sway once I do have access to the web and iOS apps, which I'm hoping will be soon. In the meantime, hopefully this preview will intrigue you as much as my initial briefing with Microsoft did for me. A new Office app. A new Office app designed for the "mobile first, cloud first" era.  Very interesting.

Oh, and head on over to the Office Sway web site, check out some demos and sign up for the preview.

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