Microsoft is adding a host of new capabilities to its Office productivity suite that are aimed at using machine learning to help people get their work done more efficiently. Outlook, Excel, and Word will all benefit, with new features rolling out to a limited set of users in the coming months and then expanding to a broader set of people later on.

Outlook’s web client will provide users with an interface that will automatically offer them responses to questions layered inside emails, while Excel has a new feature that suggests charts and pivot tables. Word will get a feature that will help users define acronyms based on information shared within their organization.

Above: An animation shows Microsoft Excel’s new Insight feature.

Image Credit: Microsoft

The news is part of Microsoft’s ongoing push to improve its productivity suite for workers by providing them with intelligent services. All of the features are designed to make it easier for people to get work done fast by reducing the complexity of tasks inside Office 365. They’re also designed to attract people to Microsoft’s cloud productivity service, since all of those capabilities require processing on the company’s servers.

The risk, however, is that while these capabilities sound good on paper, they can be a bit rough when the rubber meets the road. Microsoft is planning to roll out these features to a small group of users at first, those who have expressed interest in testing out the latest Office features, before unleashing them on the rest of the world, in an attempt to make sure that they work the best they can.


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Microsoft isn’t alone in pushing intelligent productivity capabilities, either: Google has spent time pushing its own machine learning-based features inside G Suite, including support for automatically generating charts and pivot tables. Inbox, Google’s experimental email product that’s focused on productivity, has a marquee Smart Reply feature that’s supposed to allow users to quickly respond to the content of emails they receive by clicking on one of three buttons.

The feature that Microsoft offers in Outlook is designed to give people more than just one response to an entire email, for more complex messages filled with several questions. Wherever Outlook detects a question, it will provide users with a drop-down menu that includes a series of automatically generated suggested responses, based on the content of the question.

In addition to the question and answer feature, Outlook is also losing Clutter, a feature that was supposed to take unimportant emails and shove them into a separate folder for later reading. That capability has now been rolled into the email service’s Focused Inbox feature, which keeps all of the messages a user receives in their inbox, but splits up how they’re displayed based on whether Microsoft’s algorithm thinks they’re important.

Outlook for iOS users will also get time to leave notifications, which will provide users with information about when they need to head out in order to reach the next event on their calendar. It uses information about traffic conditions, walking paths, and live transit data to give users an estimate of when they need to get moving.

Excel will get a new Insights feature that’s designed to automatically generate charts and pivot tables based on data users input to the service. The feature is supposed to provide customers with automatic identification of details like outliers and trends within data that it’s been fed. Actually drawing insights out of Excel can be challenging for people who aren’t experts at using the software, so this service may help democratize analysis for people who aren’t part of the pivot table priesthood.

Users who are sick of getting lost in a sea of acronyms at work get a new feature in Word. It processes all of the files shared within an organization using the Microsoft Graph to pull definitions of commonly used abbreviations, so it’s easier for folks to know WTF a TPS report is. Different organizations will get different definitions, depending on how people use acronyms, since CYA can mean different things at different companies.

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