Forget the rumors. Here's what it's really like to use the Office 15 Technical Preview, which Microsoft recently made available only to a select group of customers under non-disclosure agreement. I was able to get my hands on a copy, and while it's not exactly ready for prime time--a more stable and functional public is due this summer--there are intriguing hints here for the future.
The Office 15 Technical Preview doesn't appear to work well in a clean install configuration, but you can upgrade from an existing copy of Office 2010 Professional Plus easily enough. As you can see, the process, for now at least, is almost identical to that for Office 2010.
Looking at the installer, the big thing that stands out is a new Microsoft My Site Documents option, which I've come to understand will eventually replace SharePoint Workspace. Too, Lync is now part of the install, as I'd expected, and runs automatically at boot if installed.
Installation took only a several minutes and did require a reboot, as with Office 2010. I installed the Office 15 Technical Preview on top of the Windows 8 Consumer Preview running on a multi-touch capable tablet to see what the touch experience and potential Metro integration looked like.
First boot experience
After rebooting the tablet and signing in to Windows 8, I immediately scrolled to the end of the Start screen, knowing full well that Office had dumped some number of live tiles there. But even I was surprised by how many there were.
(Will Microsoft clean this up? I would bet so.)
Application user experiences
My first stop, as always, was Microsoft Word. This application shows a decidedly friendlier face than does its predecessor, in a full screen experience that indeed mimics some Metro-style design. There's a split view on first load that provides a list of recent documents and then a larger Get Started area with various document templates. If you're familiar with Office for the Mac, its similar, but nicer looking.
Open a blank document and the Metro look and feel continues, right down to a Windows 8 Consumer Preview-like watermark on the application window.
The ribbon is present but minimized by default, helping create that clean, Metro-style minimalist look. There is a new tab, too. While Home, Insert, References, Mailings, Review, and View carry over, Microsoft has added a new tabs called Design for configuring document themes, watermarks, and page colors and borders.
Also new--and clearly a nod to tablets--is a new full-screen mode. When you click the tiny little arrow next to the window control buttons--it's way too small to tap with a finger--the app chrome mostly disappears. Curiously, the taskbar is still visible in this view, but I wonder if that will change, at least on Windows 8-based tablets.
(You can tap or click near the top of the screen to display the ribbon again and, if desired, toggle the normal view back.)
In the Quick Access Toolbar, you'll see a curious new icon that resembles a bullet hole. This enables "touch mode," which increases the size of onscreen elements so that they are more easily accessed via touch. This then is a key part of Microsoft's strategy for making Office 15 more accessible on new Windows 8 devices. As you can see, it seems to work pretty well.
Also new to this version is Microsoft ID integration. As with Windows Live Photo Gallery, you're now signed into your Microsoft ID automatically.
Open the small pop-up menu and you can manage your connected services. In my case, I was automatically connected to Flickr, My Office (which is new), SkyDrive, Windows Live Hotmail, and Windows Live Messenger. Other available services include Office 365 SharePoint and LinkedIn.
This of course gave me an idea: How would Office 15 integrate with, say, SkyDrive? (If at all.) And sure enough, if you tap the Save As item from File, you're presented with a number of locations including SkyDrive, Computer, and Other Web Locations. I'm very interested to see that SkyDrive is the first choice.
I was able to save a Word document to SkyDrive easily, and then work on it from there as if it were a local file.
Curiously, Word Options are still accessible via a floating window. I was told during the Office 2010 beta that Microsoft would fix this by the next version and make this a normal experience inside of the application window. Maybe that will happen by the beta.
Microsoft My Site Documents, by the way, will eventually replace SharePoint Workspace. Launching this tile in the Technical Preview simply launches SharePoint Workspace.
Here are more screenshots of the other Office 15 applications. I've expanded the ribbon in each case where available.
I don't want to drill too deep into Office 15 until Microsoft officially unveils the product and provides a more feature-complete version in the beta. But even at this early stage, you can see where Microsoft intends for this product to sit, visually, between the new Metro style and the traditional desktop. Regardless of which type of system you'll be using, however, the applications in this suite should look right at home. As to new features in individual applications ... Well, we'll just have to wait and see.