(Credit: Microsoft)

One of the jobs of a journalist is taking interview recordings and transcribing them into text on a page. Transcription used to be a process so tedious that entire companies offered their services to do it for you and save you time. Some still do, but we also now have mobile apps that do the job well enough to work in a pinch.

People working with spreadsheets in Microsoft Office also need to convert data from one format to another all the time, and it can be just as time-consuming. And at Microsoft's Ignite conference in Florida this week, the company has unveiled a new feature for the Android version of Excel that can take a table captured by your camera phone and add it to a spreadsheet in the app.

SEE: Microsoft Office vs Google Docs Suite vs LibreOffice in 2018

This new feature is simply called Insert Data from Picture, and it's one of several products to come out of Microsoft's recent advances in AI. This AI specializes in identifying spreadsheet-style tables in a photo, and the company says that it can even handle hand-drawn tables.

Microsoft says that Insert Data from Picture will be "available in preview," which is Microsoft jargon for "not necessarily the final version of a product or feature." Or "beta," if you like. This feature will presumably be coming to the iOS version of Excel as well.

If Android users are eager to get onboard, they can do so by signing up for the Office 365 Insiders Program, a free service for Office subscribers that lets you test an app or feature before it's released to the general public. Microsoft says that Insert Data from Picture will be available "soon," so it's not here quite yet. Insiders will just be the first group of people who get to kick its tires, once it arrives.

If you don't have Office 365 but you'd like to try it out, Microsoft offers a 30-day free trial. Note that when your trial expires, you'll be automatically be charged $100, for which you get one year of access to Office 365 Home, which supports up to five users.

The new Microsoft Excel has a few other tricks up its sleeve

Excel's new camera feature is no mere gimmick, as there are several other improvements on the way. Microsoft will also be debuting a new feature called Ideas, an analysis tool for Excel that the company says can isolate "trends, patterns, and outliers" within the data, potentially saving users a lot of time.

Once the feature has been added to Excel ("soon"), Microsoft will integrate into its PowerPoint slideshow presentation app.

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Another new and interesting addition is a tool for stocks and geography that can generate interactive visualizations of certain data sets. One example given by Microsoft is a map of the United States that counts coffee shops.

This data could be tinkered with to display the number of shops per 100,000 people in each state, or the number of shops per square mile. Or you could skip state lines and run the numbers according to the regions of your choice.

The bottom line: Microsoft knows that Excel is the de facto spreadsheet for the business world, but it's clearly not about to rest on those laurels or cede more ground to Google Sheets, Apple Numbers, or anybody else. Thankfully for users, growing competition in the office productivity market appears to be leading to more innovation. We'll see how Google and the other rivals respond.

The takeaways

  • Microsoft has announced a new feature coming to the Android version of Excel that can take a data table from a photo on your phone and put it into a spreadsheet.
  • This feature, called "Insert Data from Picture," will first arrive in a beta version, which users can access by signing up for the Officer Insider program, which lets you test apps and features before they're released to the public.
  • Excel is also getting new tools to visualize data and surface interesting details that may otherwise be difficult to identify.

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Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.