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Microsoft's redesigned Office icons signal big changes for the tech giant

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Microsoft’s (MSFT) Office is getting a makeover. Well, sort of: The Redmond, Washington-based tech giant on Thursday announced that it’s revamping the icons for the 10 programs that make up its Office productivity suite. Those icons will get a new styling more closely aligned to the design aesthetic of Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system.

More importantly, though, the change signifies an evolution for Office. In the next few years, that could mean fundamental changes for the way we work — including an increased used of artificial intelligence and the company’s Cortana virtual assistant.

A new look for Office

It’s no small task to redesign a series of icons for a suite of apps, especially when more than a billion people use them each day. It took Microsoft’s team of designers a full year from the time they started sketching ideas until the group finally landed on a look they liked.

“There was a lengthy process of research and talking to people once we felt like we had a set that was starting to work,” explained Becky Brown, principal designer for the project.

“Then we would go talk to users and come back and refine that set, and then talk to users again. So it was quite a long process just to make sure we were making something that was going to be able to scale in the future, and going to be able to be applied to all different kinds of displays and in all different kinds of ways.”

Microsoft tends to update the look of its Office icons every three to five years. And since the company last changed its design way back in 2013, it was time for something new. The visual enhancements, which have a flatter look similar to Windows 10’s Fluent design, aim to draw attention to the changes Microsoft has made to the suite since it announced a redesign of some of Office’s most important elements such as the control bar or “ribbon” of tools at the top of the screen back in June.

The evolution of Microsoft’s Office icons throughout the years.

“We want people to notice and to be able to have access to the changes and to learn about them so they can take advantage of all of the things we are doing,” Brown explained. “So an app icon change is a really big signal that there are new things happening in the app.”

But as with any kind of software change, there are sure to be detractors.

“We’re fully expecting to get a broad range of feedback,”  Microsoft Office’s design head, Jon Friedman, told Yahoo Finance. “You know, there are people who love change and there are people who don’t want change at all, and change like this is very polarizing. So we expect to get positive and negative feedback. What matters is we listen closely, and we listen over time.”

A sign of what’s to come

While the Office icon redesign is certainly a means for Microsoft to highlight the recent changes to its productivity suite, the visual enhancements also point to Office’s future, and how Microsoft believes work will change in the next three to seven years.

“Office has moved from being just a set of apps that you can download, to a subscription service that has collaboration built in so that you can work with other people, intelligence that allows you to turn data into insights,” Friedman said. “And so now Office is something that just makes you better and helps you accomplish your goals faster.”

Nestled in a nondescript building in Microsoft’s sprawling campus is the company’s futuristic Envisioning Center. That 6,000-square-foot workspace mimics the various scenarios in which Microsoft believes consumers and business users will work and play in the near future.

According to Harald Becker, director of industry engagement and research for Microsoft Envisioning, much of the technology in the Envisioning Center is at least partially based on what is currently available in the marketplace.

But it’s the productivity software that really stands out. That’s where Microsoft shows off how the Office suite could eventually exist as a single program rather than a series of disparate apps.

Breaking down barriers

The boundaries between Office’s different apps are already beginning to fade, thanks to its Teams program. A direct competitor to the popular collaborative messaging app Slack, Teams allows users to work on Office documents, send messages and video chat from a single app. Slack, for its part, lets you send messages and video chat, but you can’t work on Office documents from within the app itself.

It’s that kind of inter-app compatibility that Microsoft hopes to roll out in the coming years. And much of it will be powered by the company’s investments in artificial intelligence and its voice assistant, Cortana.

With artificial intelligence Microsoft hopes to launch an app that can understand context and provide you with pertinent information before you even request it. During one demo, Becker used a digital whiteboard to show how users can collaborate in real time with their colleagues using any device they have while manipulating traditionally siloed pieces of information including text, spreadsheets, images and hand-drawn sketches.

A second demonstration revealed how AI could be used alongside Cortana during video meetings. The simulation — the people on the other end of the meeting were actors from a pre-recorded video — showed how the AI system can transcribe voice notes in real-time and create a list of what it believes are the most important topics from the meeting.

During a third demonstration, Becker showed how the lack of walls between Office’s apps will let users drag and drop charts and images into documents with ease.

“I think it’s important on the basis of at the end of the day the way, people work is changing,” explained Microsoft’s chief product officer, Panos Panay. “At the end of the day, they are more collaborative. At the end of the day, our products are blending into one another. These icons are truly representative of that.

“You can see Microsoft continuing to have new ways of thinking, continuing to push the boundaries of design and innovation through these products,” Panay added.

Of course, Office isn’t the only productivity suite in town. Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) own productivity suite is used by a number of organizations including Yahoo Finance. To stay ahead of the search giant, Microsoft will have to continue to iterate and build on Office. It will also have to deliver on the concepts it’s putting forward.

The company’s Office 365 subscription service and Azure cloud computing platform have already managed to push Microsoft back into the upper echelon of tech stocks. On Tuesday, the company briefly passed Apple to become the most valuable publicly traded U.S. company.

That impressive rise has been the result of early planning for Azure and Office 365 under former CEO Steve Ballmer and the execution of those plans under current CEO Satya Nadella. But as Ed Anderson, vice president of research and distinguished analyst at market research firm Gartner, explains, Microsoft is going to need to continue to innovate if it’s going to keep that growth moving.

“They’ve got to be seen as a provider who is going to take their customers, as well as new customers, into the future,” Anderson explained. “And right now Amazon, and like I said to a lesser extent Google, kind of own that mindshare. Microsoft has got to make that transition.”

If the technologies that Microsoft is laying the groundwork for today via the Office icon changes pan out, then the company could be in good shape for years to come.

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@oath.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley. Follow Yahoo Finance on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.finance.yahoo.com/