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One year later, Microsoft Office's collaboration tools are still a work in progress

Ian Paul | March 11, 2014
Driven by competition from Google Apps, Microsoft's new approach to Office focuses on making your documents available to you everywhere and facilitating easy collaboration and file sharing.

It's understandable how Microsoft may have come to this decision. Without the cue of live typing, edits that automatically appeared on the desktop app after a save could quickly become confusing. The end result, however, is you have to integrate separate steps into your workflow to send and receive changes to a document during collaboration.

Once you receive changes, they are highlighted so that you can easily see what was added by another editor.

Another persistent quirk of live collaboration is you cannot co-edit an Excel document from the desktop. Everyone must be working in Excel Online for live collaboration on spreadsheets to work.

Office provides two ways to chat with collaborators. If you're using the desktop version and you have Skype for desktop open (or Lync for enterprise users) you can chat within that app. On the Web, you can use the built-in messaging client in OneDrive and

Chatting on the desktop is pretty straightforward. If you hover over an editor's name in the bottom left side of any Office app, you'll see a modern-UI-style contact card with options for text chat, email, and voice and video calls. Click the chat icon and you are immediately pushed over to Skype/Lync.

However, you can't initiate a chat directly in the consumer-grade version of Office Online. Instead, you have to go back to your OneDrive dashboard and click the messaging icon in the top-left corner. This automatically opens the chat sidebar in any of the online apps, but it's an unnecessary extra step. One workaround is to always keep your messaging sidebar open in the OneDrive Web app, which forces the messaging feature to appear in any document you open.

Another not-so-obvious issue for both Office Online and the desktop is that you can't chat with a collaborator unless they are already added to your Skype contacts. You would think that simultaneously editing the same document implies the need to have a discussion, but that's not the way it works.

Microsoft's Web-based chat component doesn't have chime notifications to let you know someone has messaged you. Without an audio cue, you'll have to keep your eye on any collaborative browser tabs you have open so you don't miss out on important communications.

Commenting is essential in any collaboration tool, but before Word 2013, comments were often messy, poorly laid out, and incredibly confusing to work with.

Not so with Office 2013. The modern-UI-inspired commenting system is much clearer and easier to read. Comments are off to the right of the document just like before, but instead of a series of balloons, you get comments organized into blocks. Hover over a comment with your mouse and Word immediately shows you the section it's attached to. If you've avoided using comments in earlier versions of Office, they're well worth reconsidering.


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