MS Office 365 is losing the plot

I am a heavy user of bits of Office 365, the cloud-orientated subscription version of Office from Microsoft.

For those who don’t know, 365 is the “always current” version of office that is paid for by a yearly subscription, rather than the one-off purchase that is Office 19. As a subscription it is kept continuously up to date, always has the latest features, has some unique features, and comes with 1tb of cloud storage linked through OneDrive. It still gives you the full desktop apps of the core programmes like Word, Excel, Outlook, Powerpoint, Publisher and so on.

The Office Ecosystem has changed over the years as users become split between cloud and desktop users, and Microsoft has been encouraging users over onto the cloud for most things.

But this has come at a cost. Some of the online and mobile App versions of programmes are, to say the least, underwhelming compared to their desktop equivalents, and there is a lack of central management of all your activity.

For instance, tasks are all over the place. Outlook doesn’t currently talk to MS Todo (though that is being worked on), the powerful link between OutLook and OneNote is being weakened, and there never has been a good central document management system, at least not for ordinary users.

Currently, Office 365 is by far the most powerful and usable office system out there and is competitively priced, making it the most popular. But because of that position of strength, maybe it is time for Microsoft to look at how it works as a system and try and bring some of the more disparate elements together while making it truly cross-platform.

Affinity — A lesson in cross-platform design

I have been using Photoshop for years and love it, but buying an iPad Pro, I was disappointed that the App version of Photoshop, Express, was pretty much useless. Here I was with the then most powerful tablet, with a beautiful screen and a pen, and I couldn’t do more than sketch a bit.

Then I met Affinity Photo. For a small single price, they were selling a Desktop rival for photoshop that was far beyond their previous incarnation under the Serif brand name. It is really good!

What was more, for an even smaller price, there was a version for the iPad that had EXACTLY THE SAME functionality. I could move from one to another pretty much seamlessly.

Since then, they have released Affinity Designer, an Illustrator (plus a bit) alternative. Again, on both Desktop and iPad. And again, with identical functionality. I have to stress again that these apps are as powerful as their Adobe rivals — these are not lesser creatures.

As a result, Adobe is now promising a full version of Photoshop for the iPad Pro (the most recent version, though I hope my 2017 version too).

Cross-Platforming Office

The web versions I can forgive — creating a huge level of functionality to be used via a web browser is problematic as it relies not just on what is on the server end, but the functionality of the browser too. And since the desktop versions work happily in the cloud, when using a desktop or laptop why would you bother with the browser version?

But that is not the case with a tablet, especially as tablets are getting bigger and behaving more and more like laptops — Apple is promoting that exact idea with their newest iPad Pro.

It is time that the iOS and Android versions of Office apps not only looked more like the desktop version (for 365 paid-up users), but were identical in every function — including the import/sharing of templates, styles, custom dictionaries and the rest.

The Sad Case of OneNote — a Warning?

Over the last couple of years, Microsoft has moved all development onto the App version (which is also the default desktop version with Windows 10), and killed development in OneNote 2016.

The result, for power users, is a cutdown, feeble version of the original that is badly laid out and, in some cases, unusable.

You cannot create page templates. A huge amount of the tools have simply vanished. You can no longer create whole notebook templates and cannot import them. You cannot rearrange the layout to how it suits you as you can with the older version.

In fact, for someone like me who uses OneNote for everything and relies on it heavily, the new version is pretty much useless except as a viewer app.

But the worry is, will Microsoft slowly move this way with their other apps? With OneNote it feels like they have chosen the lowest common denominator when it comes to user-type, and cut down the app to suit them, turning their back on users like me. What if they do that with Word or Excel or PowerPoint?

Task Mania

This is the fault of the techs.

This is a bunch of very nice people who spend far more time thinking of multiple ways of collecting and storing data than actually working out whether it is useful.

In consequence, tasks have become far too complicated and we now spend huge amounts of time managing tasks rather than doing them.

One of the cleverest task systems ever invented was the drawing pin. This allowed us to nail a note to something in clear vision, thus acting as a much better reminder system than the knot in the handkerchief.

But, in the software environment, it has really got out of hand. Sticking with Microsoft, we have Sticky Notes, Outlook Tasks, Tasks and list on OneNote 2016 (no idea what happened on the app), and now ToDo. Oh, and don’t forget your calendar app, which is also a to-do system.

And guess what?

They don’t really talk to each other properly, or at all in some cases.

Where is the point in that? If I create a reminder in the MS ecosystem, wouldn’t it be obvious that it would be replicated throughout the associated apps?

Apparently not. They are now looking at some integration with OutLook, but bearing in mind that the old, well-loved, OutLook tasks are not even replicated properly on the Tablet version of Outlook, you wonder where they are heading.

Thinking Centrally — the solution?

But why would you want this? Isn’t there a risk of clutter, yet another app that is somehow displaying absolutely everything you have done or thought of in a bewildering array of, I don’t know, everything?

Oh yes! That was the problem with things like Lotus Notes or some of the CRM systems that have been forced down unwilling employees throats. They have become so complicated and so comprehensive, that they are swamped with data, a huge amount of which is actually useless to them.

But a clever central system would not be displayed at all, not unless you really wanted it to be. (I am not that sad — well, not always).

What I am talking about here is a way of welding everything back together. Either optionally or by default.

The best way of demonstrating this is with a task.

A task, when created, should be accessible to:

Outlook Tasks
Calendar (if the task has a date, or is a meeting or is a reminder)
Sticky Notes

And if it is created in any one of those, then it should be available to the rest.

Tasks should also be related to the core Office Apps (online or not). So I should be able to make a note on the manuscript for my book that says “rethink this character” and that is now a task everywhere should I wish it to be.

A pop-up box would ask me, “Select where you want this noted” with a default set that you have chosen as your most usual links to speed things up.

To make things faster, you can choose in Word to always add notes to other apps, so you don’t have to use the pop-up at all — you select it after if you choose to change what happens.

It is vital that this does not become too complicated, so, choosing to automate or not, customise or not, is vital. As is assigning keyboard shortcuts or other useful ways of working quickly.

That is just with a task, but this can be extended elsewhere. OneNote 2016 has the functionality of working in tandem with a document, a function that I think is rarely used because it is awkward, takes a bit of setting up and needs a big monitor. I think it has been abandoned on the App version that is replacing it.

But it was a good idea, just poorly implemented. Being able to add notes to a Word Doc and have those invisibly added to a page in OneNote just by selecting a page for the doc, and without all the docking and other complications, would be very useful.

As would being able to work backwards. So when I am making notes about a story (I plan all my books in OneNote 2016), I can elect to associate those notes with a specific document. When I later open that document, it would ask if I want to open my note page too.

We can add communication here.

We can currently send a copy of an email from Outlook desktop to OneNote. So how about reversing that? What if I want a OneNote page to become an email without actually opening Outlook? Wouldn’t it be nice to hit a button that just added the send fields and just do it? Behind the systems it is using Outlook, of course; OneNote hasn’t become an email client, but it feels like it has.

Or maybe I am making a Todo list in Onenote. Press a button and it becomes a to-do list in Todo?

Or perhaps, again in OneNote (are you seeing a theme here?) I want to see a directory of my docs? And then open one of them. We are now working in the cloud, remember? Everything is there, all associated to our username in a huge database. All that information is ready and waiting.

Or on my iPad, maybe I have a ToDo list that is already linked with a project (where did that come from?) in OneNote. I add a todo there and it is suddenly in my OneNote notebook, oh, and when I look at my desktop, it has appeared as a sticky note with a link to the document that I had associated with the todo in the first place…

Or perhaps I want to look at an excel file that is part of a OneNote project (oops, there it is again) that is associated with a PowerPoint and a bunch of emails and ….

Oh, you get the idea.

Basically, what we have here, is a bunch of related information collated in a Microsoft database, associated with one or more users, that is automatically available to or populated to lots of existing applications. And, in my case, I am using OneNote as a way of pulling all those threads of information into one place that I can look at if I want to. Or ignore.

This is not Lotus Notes, or any other CRM, because it is not forcing you to work through another system first. You don’t have to open OneNote to get to a Word doc, for instance. It works in the background, completely invisible if you wish, as a way of helping you keep things organised and reduce the number of times you end up repeating yourself. And also so you don’t miss out on information simply because you don’t have one particular app installed on one particular device.

All the apps are still just the apps, and they work just as they do now. They just are sewn together a little more tightly.

Redeveloping anything always risks leaving people behind. The change in OneNote is a prime example here, though a particularly daft one, in my mind, that makes no business sense in anyway what-so-ever.

And if Office was redirected to try and bring some of the elements together, that is definitely a risk. But I think it is one that can be achieved as long as those changes, that centralisation of all info, not just some, and allowing all apps to access that info, is done invisibly. But with one exception:

The Project

My project would be part of OneNote. You could define a Notebook as a project, or a section group, or a section, or even just a page as a project. Anything within that project — links, lists, embedded docs, reminders, emails, tasks, skype calls, and the rest — are all associated with that one activity and are available and can be added to by any other app.

Although these can be shared, simply because a notebook can be shared, really this is aimed at the single user.

This is meant to be a way of tying threads together, should a user want to, in a logical, cross-platform, cross-app way that is seamless and intuitive, and does not ask the user to hit a hundred more keys or buttons in the process.

And the project is optional. This cross-data idea is something that should happen anyway, whether or not the user wants to curate the information into a single project.

But why should Microsoft do this?

Microsoft, like all companies, has a habit of letting their techs come up with bright ideas without really thinking about what happens to all the existing bright ideas.

ToDo is probably the best example of this. It is a replacement for Wunderlist, though not yet as powerful. But it is mostly stand-alone, ignoring all the things that kind of do this already.

Why didn’t they just redevelop Outlook tasks? Or do something within OneNote? The latter being possibly more logical as not everyone uses Outlook, even if they have it. Same applies to OneNote, in truth.

Microsoft wants to force everyone onto the cloud, even those whose access to the cloud is not always very good, or who (like a huge number of OneNote users) are not happy with storing notebooks outside of their local system.

But if they are going to do that, they need to do more to link things together and keep things highly functional for ALL users, not just the lowest common denominator.

At the moment, it comes across as a mess and overly complicated. I get fed up of opening three or four apps to get all my info when opening one would be a lot nicer. I hate that I add a todo in ToDo, and then separately do a Sticky Note for the same thing in case I forget to look at the right list on Todo.

It seems maddening that I think of something to do tomorrow, but I will have to wait for the next day to add it to that day’s Today list on Todo — thus doing everything twice.

It is a pain to keep track of in which folder I had stored a document related to an email I received and a notebook I have and a Todo that I wrote on my iPad and… ohhhhhhh!

Microsoft Office 365 is powerful and I use Word, OneNote and Outlook every day, and add ToDo as well. But it is not clever enough and it is getting complicated to keep track of everything in an intuitive way that doesn’t actually make my life even more complicated!

It is about time Microsoft stopped adding more and brings together what they already have in a much more intelligent way.



Author, poet, musician and writer of the huge fantasy Saga Dirt. Find out more at my blog:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
CC Hogan, Author

Author, poet, musician and writer of the huge fantasy Saga Dirt. Find out more at my blog: