Office, Outlook, Slack, Handoff: The digital workplace reborn

Office and Outlook have been reinvented, collaboration tools like Slack are finally useful, and devices are evolving for new digital workflows

Office, Outlook, Slack, Handoff: The digital workplace reborn

"Office productivity" has meant Microsoft Office and Outlook on a Windows PC for nearly two decades, and most of us take it for granted as part of the technological woodwork. New versions of Office and Outlook long ago outstripped the functionality 99.9 percent of us need, and except for jarring UI changes like the introduction of the Ribbon in 2007, we take new versions in stride.

But the digital office has undergone a fundamental, positive change in the past few years, one that should cause a rethink by users and IT alike.

The rebirth of Microsoft Office is (hopefully) only the start

Five years ago, I would have said that Microsoft Office and Exchange were dying dinosaurs, given Microsoft's active development of crappy mobile versions and continued crippling of the MacOS versions.

But in the past 18 months, Microsoft has turned around Office for mobile users and is well on the way to doing the same for the Mac version, though issues remain. (Some good news: 64-bit is finally coming!)

Outlook is still behind on all non-Windows platforms, but Microsoft is (for now) committed to turning that around -- and even exposing its core functionality to non-Microsoft apps via common APIs across platforms. Give it a couple years.

I can't wait for the day that Outlook on iOS or Android is as good as those platforms' native apps, and when basic features like email blocking and Outlook Groups work on Mac Outlook. Hopefully, SharePoint, Skype for Business, and OneDrive will follow the same path.

The mobile and Mac equality is critical: Work has moved well beyond the Windows PC, even if that platform remains the center of gravity, and the tools we use need to be fully functional throughout that heterogeneous world.

Had Microsoft not reversed its prior Office course, we would likely have ended up with the ill-fitting combination Office and Outlook on Windows; iWork, Mail, Calendar, Notes, and Contacts on MacOS and iOS; Gmail and Kingsoft's WPS Mobile Office on Android; and Google Apps and basic webmail in the browser. Phew!

Collaboration: Two steps forward, one step back

But the new office is not solely Office and Outlook. It's also collaboration tools, from conferencing to group chats to file sharing. That world is still uneven: Microsoft's collaboration suite remains poor, even with recent moves to bring SharePoint to iOS and Skype for Business to MacOS, iOS, and Android. The fact is we're years away from those tools doing the job right. Even OneDrive, which has made the most improvements after Office itself in the new heterogeneous reality, still has big cross-platform gaps.

Of course, there's more to the digital office than Microsoft. For example, Slack is the tool to beat for group chats. It works very well across platforms, it supports all sorts of useful integrations, and it gives users the ability to keep their conversations truly private when desired -- people need that freedom to truly, honestly work together. Atlassian's HipChat is also good.

The well-known cloud storage services -- Box and Dropbox -- continue to offer capabilities that enterprises will like, and they help keep Microsoft from getting complacent about OneDrive and SharePoint.

Google Drive's strong sharing capabilities, also available from within its very limited Google Apps productivity suite, continue to provide a model of modern collaborative work approaches, pointing the way to how more capable apps like Office and iWork should function for group projects. Too bad Google has continued to limit the core editing features and all but required the use of a web browser.

Collaboration's other side: Handoff and Continuity show the way

Apple's iWork suite once had been the standard bearer for mobile users, but Microsoft has caught up as Apple has stopped trying. Also, Office works on all four major platforms (Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android) whereas iWork runs on only two (MacOS and iOS). Still, Apple has something to offer still: Handoff and Continuity, its suite of technologies that allows apps to work together and work activities to flow from one device to another, in what InfoWorld calls liquid computing.

It's incredibly powerful to be able to text from your Mac, to start an email on your iPhone and finish it on your iPad, and to have your browser bookmarks and passwords stay in sync across all your devices. You'll find some of these concepts implemented elsewhere, but nothing as cohesive as what Apple has. One day, I bet they'll become intrinsic to every major platform and perhaps even across them. It's too useful to fade away.

Wireless protocols like Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth have made it much easier to connect devices to each other ad hoc, and thus let both processes and information flow among them.

You can see these wireless networking protocols used in the new conference-room streaming approaches made possible by the Apple TV and Google Chromecast. The ad hoc wireless network has also killed off the once-emerging mobile docks called lapdocks, like the Motorola Atrix, intended to bridge mobile devices with desktop use; now you can do that with mainly Bluetooth peripherals and a few cables (such as for displays). The wireless federation approach is much better because it's more flexible and thus will support more possible combinations of devices.

The changing hardware in the new office

The new office is not evolving in software only. Devices are evolving, too. We've seen how Microsoft and Google rethought the laptop in view of the iPad when the iPad seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut.

Microsoft's Surface Pro and Google's Chromebook both had very rocky starts, but they now seem to be coming into their own as the new type of device called a tabtop -- even Apple has remade the iPad in the tabtop image in the form of the large iPad Pro. Like so many aspects of the new office, the tabtop's evolution is only beginning.

There have long been highly useful apps for smartphones and tablets, but many people consider those devices to be too confining to use for "real" work, even if the apps are available. The tabtop is a step toward having our cake and eating it too.

Then there's the desk phone. Mobile devices and cloud services (for both work and home computers, too) let us work anywhere at any time. But our work phone numbers don't come along for the ride. And cellphones simply can't do the job of a desk phone. Those unified-communications monstrosities aren't the answer either.

The good news is we're on the cusp of the much-needed evolution of the desk phone, so it works more like email in that your account is available across the devices you use without the hassles of managing forwarding rules or heavyweight interfaces. When that day comes, we'll truly be free to work anywhere, anytime -- while still being able to turn them off when we're off duty.

The new digital office is the coming together of all these technologies and, more important, the underlying principles of powerfully portable capabilities in easy-to-use endpoints.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.