Microsoft originally published message center notification MC240609 on February 21 to inform organizations about modern comments in Word (for Windows). An adjusted schedule means that Microsoft 365 apps for enterprise (Office Pro Plus) users will experience modern comments when Word receives its current channel update in June (I am using Version 2105 Build 14026.20164).
While Microsoft 365 roadmap item 76186 promises “a more productive with a consistent commenting experience between Word, Excel and PowerPoint.” For now, Word is a little ahead of the other Microsoft 365 apps. According to MC256459, PowerPoint will get modern comments in late August. Interestingly, while Word allows older version to see modern comments, PowerPoint will not.
Comments in Word are important to the Office 365 for IT Pros writing team. We use comments extensively to track places where chapters need to be updated following changes released by Microsoft, or when our technical editor looks over text to ensure its accuracy. The advent of modern comments seemed promising, so we plunged into the detail.
Modern comments bring two important improvements. First, for documents stored in SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, Word supports @mentions to allow reviewers to target the person to respond to a comment. Second, unlike the previous implementation of comments which show the text of comments during composition, modern comments must be posted to become visible to other readers of a document. In other words, you don’t see a comment until the person making the comment is happy to share their views and clicks the Post button (Figure 1). This doesn’t sound like much of an advance, but it is important when commenting on complex topics when the comments often take some time to compose, review, and complete.
The @mentions work the same way as elsewhere inside Office 365. Create a new comment and @mention a user in the directory (tenant or guest account). If necessary, Word prompts for the user to assign permission for the @mentioned person to allow access to the document (Figure 2). The need to assign permissions is likely the reason why @mentions don’t work outside the tenant.
Prompting for permissions is more obvious when working with documents stored in OneDrive for Business. I never saw the same query for documents from SharePoint Online sites, but those @mentioned were able to open and respond to the comment. Some magic is going on here!
Word Online is also able to assign tasks to @mentions. Tasks is a loaded word in the Microsoft 365 context, where it means a task object like those created and used by Outlook, To-Do, Tasks in Teams, and Planner. Office doesn’t create Microsoft 365 tasks. Instead, it has its own task assignment, reassignment, and completion capabilities (Figure 3) and the tasks created do not show up anywhere else.
Users can view, respond to, and resolve assigned tasks using Word on mobile devices. Figure 4 shows how a comment appears in Word for iOS after receiving a notification in email and clicking through from Outlook.
With permissions (and optionally, task assignments) in place, Word sends an email notification to the person to let them know about the mention. Comments use two different kinds of email:
- @Mention (including task assignments): Word impersonates the user who created the comment so that email appears to come from their mailbox. The message goes to the person mentioned. The document owner receives a separate notification. A copy of the message is in the user’s Sent Items folder.
- Other comments: SharePoint Online sends notifications from firstname.lastname@example.org to the owner of the document. The message shows the commentator’s name as the from address (Figure 5). The commentator’s real email address is in the reply-to attribute. Exchange Online tags these messages as external.
@Mention notifications usually arrive sooner than other comments.
Microsoft has done a good job of the mail notifications for comments. For example, each comment contains a preview of the text around the comment so that the reader knows what the comment relates to. If an organization doesn’t want users to receive preview snippets in email, they can disable this by running the Set-SPOTenant cmdlet. You can’t disable or enable preview snippets for individual users or groups; it’s either on or off for the entire tenant. The default for the setting enables preview snippets. To disable preview snippets, run:
The Add a comment button seen in Figure 5 allows recipients to respond to a comment inline without leaving the message. Recipients can use this feature from OWA or Outlook desktop, but they can only do so once. If they want to add to their response, they’ll need to go to the document. To enable this to happen, the Go to comment button disappears and the Add a comment button changes so that it opens the document at the comment.
The ability to respond directly to comments inline is not unique (Yammer introduced a similar capability for OWA in early 2020). Being able to review a complete set of comments and respond inline without needing to open the document is very convenient, even if it means that you’re often only postponing the work needed to respond to comments more thoroughly.
Making, responding to, or removing comments are document modifications. SharePoint Online captures these operations as FileModified events in the Office 365 audit log.
Useful Modern Comments
Overall, modern comments shouldn’t cause people experienced with Word any problems. It takes a little while to become accustomed to posting a comment rather than simply entering the text, but it’s soon second nature. The contextual preview in notifications is very useful as is the ability to respond inline. Just about the only thing I don’t like is Word’s implementation of tasks. If Microsoft 365 is to operate as an ecosystem with common objects shared between applications, it seems strange that Word does its own thing here.