Posey's Tips & Tricks

What Does Office 365 Support for New Surface Hardware Actually Mean?

Microsoft has spilled a lot of ink touting the ways that its new Surface-branded peripherals will be bring Office 365 features to life.

Microsoft recently made a whole lot of announcements regarding both new Surface hardware and new Office 365 capabilities. As I read through that linked blog post, there was one statement about Surface hardware that I found to be particularly interesting:

Office will now showcase everything you can do with your Surface accessories within each app, whether that's the Surface Pen, Earbuds, or the Dial.

My interpretation of this statement, based on the rest of the blog post, is that Microsoft is trying to create a "better together" experience by making sure that all of the Office apps fully support all of the Surface accessories.

Some of the Surface accessories are already fully supported by Office 365. The Type Cover and the Surface Mouse, for example, work the same way that any other keyboard and mouse would. Similarly, the Surface Pen is currently supported within apps such as Word and PowerPoint, and Microsoft's blog post outlined the inking capabilities that are coming to Excel. It also discussed some inking improvements for Word and PowerPoint.

While it's easy to imagine how some of the Surface accessories will work with the Office apps, others are a bit more perplexing. Microsoft's blog post specifically mentioned the Surface Earbuds and the Surface Dial, for instance.

On the surface (no pun intended), it's kind of hard to imagine what kind of compelling use case the Surface Earbuds would bring to the Office apps. As it turns out, though, the earbuds have capabilities that go well beyond just playing sound.

According to Microsoft, the Surface Earbuds contain a microphone. PowerPoint will eventually be able to leverage this microphone for captioning or subtitling live presentations. Although the blog post did not discuss how the other Office apps will use this microphone, I am guessing that it will be marketed as a voice dictation tool for Word, and perhaps as a tool for issuing verbal natural language queries to Excel and other Office 365 apps such as Access or Power BI.

Incidentally, the Surface Earbuds can also be used as a remote control for navigating PowerPoint presentations or for starting or stopping a video. According to the Microsoft blog post, you can even put one of the earbuds in your ear and use it for capturing audio, while using the other earbud as a remote for navigating through PowerPoint slides.

So what about the Surface Dial? The Microsoft blog post mentioned the Surface Dial by name but does not provide any details as to how the Office apps will use it.

I have to confess that for about the last year, I have kind of thought of the Surface Dial as being the accessory that Microsoft forgot. I own a few Surface Dials. I use them when I am doing artwork or technical drawings, and occasionally for video editing. Even so, the Surface Dial doesn't see much action beyond those particular use cases.

It's difficult to imagine a compelling use case for the Surface Dial in the Office apps. Microsoft mentioned that ink replay is coming to PowerPoint. Certainly, the dial could be used to control the replay process, but I am betting that Microsoft comes up with a better use case than that.

For a period of time, it seemed that Microsoft was trying to get people used to the idea of working in 3-D environments. The Surface Dial could be a good tool for interacting with 3-D objects that have been inserted into Office documents.

I can also envision the Surface Dial being used as a tool for scrolling between documents. Imagine for a moment that you have five different Word documents open at the same time. Rather than using a mouse to switch from one window to the next, you might be able to turn the dial as a way to navigate between documents.

Ultimately, we will just have to wait and see what Microsoft has in mind for the Surface Dial. For a while, I was honestly wondering if Microsoft was about to discontinue the Dial, but now it seems that it may have gotten a new lease on life.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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