Word Online catching up with Word 2013, at least in some areas

Searching with Bing, extracting content from images and searching for commands improve the online version of Word

The improved symbols tool

The improved symbols tool

The free Office Online applications still have only a fraction of the capabilities in Office 2013, but an update this week adds some welcome new features -- some of which are actually ahead of the client versions.

Showing a line to indicate where a page ends is something Word has done for a very long time, and now Word Online does it too. The familiar Ctrl-Enter shortcut to create a new page now also works in Word Online.

Inserting symbols, like the copyright and Euro characters, is another feature where Word Online is catching up, though it covers only 20 common symbols, not the full list available in Windows. (Microsoft has included a button to ask for missing symbols.)

The feature for opening PDFs in Word Online appears to be a simpler version of the PDF Flow tool in Word 2013. But Word Online also gets a feature thats in OneNote 2013 but not Word 2013: it recognizes text inside images, and you can search or copy that text. This should work well with images taken with the Office Lens mobile app, which can straighten and correct perspective when you take a photo of a document or whiteboard.

The new Bing Insights for Office feature is also similar to a OneNote 2013 feature, but having your document in the cloud makes it work better. The research bar in Word 2013 lets you look up the definition of a word; in OneNote 2013, it can also run a search to show relevant web links and news stories. Insights for Office takes that a step further, using the Snapshot feature Bing uses to present images and other useful information from Wikipedia, Klout, LinkedIn, the Oxford English Dictionary for a search, as well as the text links you see in OneNote.

Bing is also able to use the content of your document to get the right context for the word youre looking up, figuring out whether youre talking about a state or a river if you mentioned Missouri, for instance, or knowing that Cotes de Provence is wine appellation.

This is the kind of improvement to an existing feature thats easier to deliver in a cloud service, because you dont have to wait for a new version of Office to come along. Its also a specific feature thats easier to offer when your document is already online, because Bing can use more of the content to make the search results more precise.

As Microsoft adds more features to Word Online, one danger is losing the simplicity of an interface that has so few features that theyre all easy to find. To help address this, a previous update added the Tell Me feature, which lets you type what youre trying to do in a search bar to find the right command (something the desktop version of Office doesnt offer).

The Office Online team has added one specific command that it saw a lot of people searching for in Tell Me (even though the information is already shown in the status bar) -- word count. And as usual, you can type not just the name of the command but a phrase like how many words to get the answer.

Tell Me also now covers commands in drop-down menus and dialog boxes, like those for changing page size or setting line spacing, as well as the commands on the ribbon. If you type in line space or size A4, the commands you need show up directly on the Tell Me menu, plus youll see the Line Spacing and Page Size menus so you can click through for more details in the usual command interface. If you type in something that isnt a command, Word Online offers to show you the Insights results for what you typed, instead of just telling you there are no matching commands.

Extending the Tell Me system means Microsoft can continue to add more features to the Office Online tools without users complaining that its hard to find them.

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