Microsoft rebuilding the Office interface to align it across Web, mobile, and desktop

Enlarge / Web Word with its new simplified ribbon.

Office today has a whole bunch of versions—the traditional, fully featured Win32 desktop applications and their near counterparts on the Mac, along with various simpler versions for the Web, mobile, and Universal Windows Platform (UWP). Presently, these various incarnations all have similarities in their interfaces, but they're far from consistent.

That's set to change. Microsoft is overhauling the interfaces of all the Office versions to bring a much more consistent look and feel across the various platforms that the applications support. This new interface will have three central elements.

First is a simplified version of the ribbon. The new simpler ribbon looks like an iteration of the simpler ribbon already used in applications such as OneNote: the tall three-row ribbon of the Office desktop apps is replaced with a single-row tabbed toolbar. Word on the Web will be the first to get the new interface—some users can opt into it today—and in July, subscription versions of Outlook for Windows will also get it.

That subscription qualification is important: only Office 365 subscribers will get this new interface. Office 2019, the next perpetually licensed version of the suite, will retain the existing ribbon interface. The development work simply won't be done by the time Office 2019 is released: Microsoft is still determining how best to use the new simple ribbon in the desktop versions of its three most complex applications, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The company promises that, at least for now, users of those applications will be able to revert to the old ribbon should they prefer it. This further cements the subscription-versus-perpetual license split that the company has already been exploiting over the last few years: Office 365 subscribers get a trickle of new features each month to their desktop applications; perpetually licensed customers don't.

Enlarge / The evolution of the icons of Outlook. The top row shows the new vector icons that will start showing up this year.

Second, the applications are using new colors and icons. The new icons are all vector graphics, so they can be scaled and resized while retaining their clean, crisp lines. They'll hit Word on the Web first, followed by Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on the desktop later this month. In July, they'll be added to Outlook for Windows, and in August, Outlook for Mac.

Enlarge / The smarter search in Outlook on the Web, showing useful results before any search terms have even been typed.

Finally, there's a greater emphasis on search: the new search box will show suggestions for people, events, and documents automatically, based on what you've been working on and who you've been collaborating with, before you even type any search terms. This smarter search box is already available in the Web apps, SharePoint Online, and Outlook mobile; in August it will also be coming to Outlook on the Web.

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