If there's one problem with presentation software, it's that it's hard for many people to create slides that look and feel professional. While Microsoft does its best to provide people with templates, it can still be hard to make slides look good -- and that's made doubly difficult for users starting from a blank canvas.
Microsoft is aiming to solve that with a new feature for PowerPoint 2016 called Designer that helps people who aren't presentation experts put together good-looking slides. When users go to insert an image into their presentation, Designer automatically pops up a sidebar on the right-hand side of the PowerPoint window with a handful of design ideas.
There are more than 12,000 layouts, which Microsoft created in conjunction with professional designers. In order to present only a handful of layouts to users, Designer looks at the images inserted and detects the most important content to influence its decision.
According to Chris Maloney, the senior program manager for PowerPoint, the tools saves users time that they would previously have spent manipulating slide elements in order to produce the same effect.
"But with Designer, we can give you this option that would have taken like 30 clicks, and we give you five of them," Maloney said. "So right there, that’s like 150 clicks, and all you have to do is try them on, see what you like, and then just be on your way."
There's one downside: Designer requires an Internet connection to work, since the analysis that powers the feature is handled in Microsoft's cloud. When PowerPoint loses its network connection, any existing slides touched by Designer can still be manipulated and edited, but the software won't suggest designs for new slides.
Another new feature, Morph, makes slick transition animations easy to pull off. It takes two different slides and transitions between them by fading and moving different slide elements around. If there's a chart that takes up the full size of one slide that is then half the size in the next one, Morph will shrink it to transition between the two.
In practice, it seems a lot like using an animation program like Adobe Flash or After Effects, with slides serving as key frames and animation filling the space between those two frames. But Maloney said that users don't have to be animation experts in order for Morph to work well for them.
Long-suffering presentation watchers may recoil in horror at the thought of new animations coming into PowerPoint, after being tortured with the overuse of flying text and bouncing images. That's why Microsoft designed Morph to be idiot-proof: all of the motion between slides is point-to-point, with object transformations taking place subtly.
Both of these features are only available to users who are subscribed to Office 365, Microsoft's software-as-a-service offering for its productivity suite. While the company allows people to buy Office 2016 as a boxed software suite, it's pushing users to pay on a monthly basis for the ability to get new feature updates like these.
On top of the new PowerPoint features, Microsoft is also offering hardcore Office users the chance to take part in the Office Insider Program. Similar to the Windows Insider Program, which gives users early access to new builds of Windows 10, Office Insiders will get the first crack at new features of Office a few weeks before they're rolled out broadly, and can provide feedback to Microsoft.
Consumers with an Office 365 Personal, Home or University subscription can opt into the Office Insider program on Windows and get access to the new applications. After that, Microsoft will roll new features out to Insiders as the company decides they're ready. In the context of this launch, Morph and Designer will be going out first to Office Insiders over the course of this week, before making their way to mainstream Office 365 Consumer and Enterprise users over the following weeks.
Enterprise users are going to have a slightly different experience. If they're opted in to the First Release tier as part of an organization on the Current Branch deployment ring, they'll get the new features alongside Office Insiders. Current Branch users whose organizations are on the Current Branch for Business will have to wait a few months for an update.