Microsoft has added so many AI-driven features to its Office 365 productivity suite this year that we wanted to pull together a comprehensive list — but it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. Features like PowerPoint Designer, OneNote’s ink to text, and Word’s grammar and style suggestions got notable improvements, but they didn’t first show up in 2019.
That’s because Microsoft doesn’t simply ship AI-powered features in Office 365 once — it refines them over time. The team is constantly trying to figure out what makes users more productive and what doesn’t. Many of the features also rely on machine learning models that adapt based on usage. “You get this amazing signal about how it’s making them more productive, how often are they using it and engaging with it, how often are they keeping the results of what you suggest to them,” Microsoft 365 general manager Rob Howard told VentureBeat. “And that creates this really awesome feedback loop where we get to focus a bunch of energy on making them much more productive.”
Howard explained that AI features in Office are supposed to support and assist the user, not take over. “It’s really not about doing somebody’s job for them, it’s actually about being really assistive, about really helping them as they do their work,” he said. “The user is still ultimately in control. The AI gets smarter based on that signal and we can help people more, but in all of these cases we’re just taking out the busy work in between.”
After a couple of conversations with Microsoft, we settled on highlighting six major AI features added to Office this year. Three are generally available and three are in preview.
“The overall theme of that release is that we really want to think harder about where Microsoft can really add value to the assistant landscape,” Shuman explained. “And where we think we can bring value to our most valuable users. And that really is about the Microsoft 365 users who have rich calendars, rich contact information. They’re using Office every day, so we have a sense of what projects are important to them what people are important to them. And that really led us to kind of think harder about how we narrow our focus and drill really deeply into being this productivity assistant.”
Available: Play My Emails and Briefing Email
Play My Emails in Outlook uses to Cortana to help you stay on top of your inbox, especially when you’re on the go. Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant and give you back time in your day. Cortana reads out your new emails intelligently, meaning rather than reading every detail, it summarizes and surfaces information like the sender, time sent, and email contents. Play My Emails is currently available in Outlook for iOS in the U.S., with availability for Android in the works.
In preview: Scheduler
Scheduler taps Cortana to help you schedule your meetings. You can include Cortana in your email to participants and let it know what you need in the body of the email (duration, timing, and location of the meeting) using natural language. You can also just write “Find a time for us” and ask Cortana to book a conference room or a call. If you have access to your participants’ calendar availability, Cortana will book the meeting when everyone is available. If you’re meeting with people outside of your organization, Cortana will email them a few possible meeting times and broker a time that works for everyone. Meeting participants can accept the suggestion or propose new times by using natural language. Cortana will then send out an invite to everyone for you. Scheduler is in preview today and will hit generally available in early 2020.
The first AI feature in Excel is a perfect example of Microsoft trying to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop. The second feature is all about gleaning insights from data for the user.
“You don’t have to create 30 different pivot tables or pivot charts to understand all the different ways that your data works,” Howard told VentureBeat. “You’ve got an assistant that’s here and is ready to help do all that busy work for you and let you focus on the insights from the data.”
Available: Insert Data from Picture
Insert Data from Picture feature in the Excel mobile app helps you import analog data. With this feature, you can easily grab data in a table from a physical piece of paper. You can thus convert financial spreadsheets, work schedules, task lists, timetables, and so on into a digital format in Excel. Insert Data from Picture supports 21 languages on Android and iOS.
In preview: Natural language queries
Excel supports natural language queries, meaning you can ask a question about your data and get quick answers without writing a formula. Using AI, Excel will quickly answer data questions using formulas, charts, or pivot tables. This feature is available for Office Insiders on Windows, Mac, and Excel for the web in English. Microsoft says it will hit general availability in early 2020.
PowerPoint has defined business presentations over the past decade. But the software itself hasn’t seen major gains. The AI features Microsoft has been adding over the past few years have made the tool much smarter.
“We’re taking a bunch of different basic AI algorithms — many of the services that are available to developers in something like Azure Cognitive Services — [and] we’re bringing them all together into a single experience,” Howard said. “That [way] we can help people be a more confident and more effective presenter within the tools that they’re already using.”
Available: Live Captions and Subtitles
If you are deaf, hard of hearing, or speak a different language from the presenter, a PowerPoint presentation can be difficult to follow. Live Captions and Subtitles in PowerPoint help everyone in the room understand the presentation. Powered by AI, this feature provides captions and subtitles for presentations in real time. Captions and subtitles can be displayed in the same language that the presenter is speaking or as a translation. The feature supports 12 spoken languages and displays on-screen captions or subtitles in over 60 languages for Office 365 subscribers on Windows, Mac, and the web.
In preview: Presenter Coach
Presenter Coach uses AI to help business professionals, teachers, and students improve their presentation skills. When you enter rehearsal mode and speak into a microphone, the feature gives you real-time on-screen feedback on pacing, the use of filler words, and inclusive language. It even warns you if you are reading off your slides. At the end of the presentation, Presenter Coach generates a report so you can practice and learn from the feedback. The feature is available in public preview for English users in PowerPoint on the web.
Next year, Howard promised Office users can expect Microsoft to focus more on writing assistance (like Ideas in Word) and mobile productivity (like Excel’s Insert Data from Picture).