Posey's Tips & Tricks

Inking Gains Traction in Office 365

From PowerPoint to Excel, Microsoft is beefing up its support for digital inking across its Office 365 apps. Here's a snapshot of upcoming features.

Inking has long been one of my favorite capabilities in both Windows 10 and Office 365. Although some tech publications have dismissed inking as being little more than a gimmick, inking is actually something that I use on a regular basis.

As a freelance author, I often have people asking me for custom content. The content development process usually starts with a phone call during which the client outlines their goals for the paper. Needless to say, I take copious notes during this process. Since it can be difficult to type while I am also holding the phone, I usually use the Surface Pen to handwrite my notes in Word.

My use of inking is by no means limited to note-taking; I do a significant amount of graphical arts work and use the Surface Pen for drawing, too.

In all honesty, I really didn't expect Microsoft to make any significant improvements to its inking capabilities -- at least not yet, anyway. After all, Microsoft released the Surface Pen way back in 2012. Since then, Microsoft has improved both the Surface Pen and support for inking in both Windows and Office. Current-generation inking works so well that I really didn't expect to see anything new until the Surface Studio 3 is eventually released.

As part of a recent series of announcements, however, Microsoft announced some new inking capabilities for Office.

One of the new inking features that was announced was actually something that I have been hoping for, although I'm not sure that I have ever mentioned it publicly: Microsoft is bringing ink replay to PowerPoint.

PowerPoint has supported inking for a while, and it has long been possible to use inking to mark up a presentation. However, ink replay will take that capability to the next level. Imagine that you are giving a presentation and one of your PowerPoint slides contains a complex diagram. If during the presentation you wanted to call attention to a specific part of the diagram, you could use the Surface Pen to circle that particular element or draw an arrow pointing to it.

This technique works really well in impromptu situations. If someone asks a question, for example, you might mark up a slide on the fly to illustrate your answer to the question. But what if you know ahead of time that you are going to need to call attention to something on your slide?

The ink replay feature will presumably allow you to mark up the slide ahead of time, but hide the ink until a time of your choosing. When you do decide to reveal the ink, the replay feature will replay your pen strokes in a way that makes it look as though you are marking up the slide in real-time.

PowerPoint isn't the only Office application to receive new inking capabilities; Microsoft is also adding inking support to Excel. Excel users will be able to use the Surface Pen to write directly into spreadsheet cells. A back-end AI engine will then convert the handwritten text into typed text.

Based on what I have seen so far, it seems that Excel will be able to accept both text and numerical inking input. One of the early demos also showed how inking gestures can be used in Excel. For example, drawing a series of squiggly lines over a series of cells causes Excel to erase the cell contents.

Personally, I think that the keyboard and mouse will remain the preferred interface for entering data into an Excel spreadsheet. However, the new inking capabilities will likely make it a lot more practical to use Excel on a tablet or on other devices that do not have a keyboard.

Finally, Microsoft is planning to enable inking within comments in Word. While I think that this sounds great, there is one more thing that I would like to see Microsoft do. I think that inking comments would be far more efficient if Microsoft were to tie the process to some sort of pen gesture. For example, maybe Microsoft could make it so that triple-tapping a word with the Surface Pen would create a comment. That way, users would not have to worry about trying to navigate the toolbar, possibly losing their place in the document in the process.

I haven't yet had the opportunity to try out any of the new Office 365 inking features. Even so, I am impressed by what I have seen of them so far, and am looking forward to their eventual release.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-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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