Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News

The new version of Microsoft Office has some cool new features, but it suffers from taking design cues from the upcoming Windows 8.

Microsoft recently announced the new version of Office, then provided media with a tablet running the latest pre-release version of Windows 8 and preview of the new Office suite.

Office, with at least five applications and some seven related programs, has become such a behemoth that I havenít had time to test it thoroughly. But I have used it enough to form some initial impressions. Foremost among them is that I like many of the new features, but find the latest Office disappointingly difficult to use.

Like Windows 8, the new version of Office was designed with post-PC devices in mind. Microsoft officials said they revamped all the programs so they can be more easily used on touch-screen devices. And the company completely redesigned two applications ó the OneNote note-taking program and the Lync communications program ó to make them run natively on the new touch-centric interface found in Windows 8.

Borrowing a page from Dropbox and Google Drive, Microsoft has built into the new Office its cloud-based storage system, called SkyDrive. Once you install it, SkyDrive shows up in the file manager as a local drive.

You can save documents there from each of your Office apps and then access those documents on other Internet-connected computers or devices.

In addition to SkyDrive, Microsoft has added other features to make the Office applications more socially connected or more useful on non-PC devices. From within Outlook, users can see if their Skype friends are online and can call them instantly. They can use Word as an electronic reader, flipping pages in a document by swiping across a touch screen. They can present a PowerPoint slide show to a Web audience at the touch of a button. And while giving a PowerPoint presentation, users can draw on the screen to underline or circle particular points for emphasis.

Excel, meanwhile, has a new feature called Flash Fill that automatically recognizes and separates discrete sets of data within a column of cells.

Microsoft also is offering a new way for consumers to buy Office. Instead of having to pay a large one-time fee for the latest version of the suite for each of their PCs, they will be able to sign up for a subscription that allows them to install it on multiple machines and get future upgrades included in the cost.

A lot of these new features are compelling or welcome changes. But the new Office has a big problem it shares with the new Windows: Its interface is a mess.

In an attempt to make Windows more versatile and competitive in a world where touch-screen devices like smart phones and tablets are outselling PCs, Microsoft bolted a touch-based interface onto its traditional Windows desktop. The result is a confusing hybrid that forces users to repeatedly switch between the two incompatible interfaces ó and constantly forces them to think about how they are supposed to interact with each.

Although the touch-based interface, dubbed Metro, was designed with devices like tablets in mind, it now serves as the home screen for Windows, forcing you to use it even on PCs and laptops that donít have touch screens. Conversely, many Windows applications are still desktop applications, which means you may often find yourself in the Windows desktop ó which was designed to be used with keyboards and mice, not fat fingertips ó even when using a touch-based tablet.

In other words, the new version of Windows isnít aware of context. It presents the same front no matter what device you are using; that front affects both traditional and touch-based devices. And Office generally suffers from the same problem.