Microsoft revs up for radical Office refit

Microsoft is now offering a "preview" edition of its forthcoming supersuite as a free download.

Psst! Want a copy of the just-released Beta 2 build of Office 2007? There's no need to whisper. Microsoft is now offering a "preview" edition of its forthcoming supersuite as a free download.

Office 2007 beta 2
[Click to enlarge] The new 'ribbon'
interface in Office 2007.

The download site went live this morning as Bill Gates announced the simultaneous release of Beta 2 editions of both Office 2007 and Windows Vista during his keynote address at Microsoft's annual Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle.

From next month users will also find a beta of Office 2007 Professional Plus on the cover-mounted DVD of the July edition of Australia's major PC magazines.

This exercise in giveaway marketing represents a radical change in strategy for Microsoft, but one which the company considers a necessary step to getting Office 2007 into users' hands and onto their hard drives. The reason is an equally radical shift to the user interface and underpinnings of its desktop cash cow.

The new supersuite abandons conventional pull-down menus and iconic toolbars in favour of a single control strip called the ribbon. This in turn reorganises all commands into tabbed context-sensitive groups which show only the tools that are relevant to what the user is doing.

Don't bother looking for a "classic" mode -- the old user interface is gone for good.

"Menus and toolbars are great, but they were designed for the 1980s era when Windows and Mac programs had 30 commands in them," said Jensen Harris, Lead Program Manager with Microsoft's Office User Experience Team. "Now we've outgrown them, because it's a lot harder to find things than it was even a decade ago."

The efforts of developers to shoehorn an ever-increasing number of features into each program only made things worse, and the road to what became a GUI hell was paved with good interface intentions.

Jensen Harris, Lead Program Manager with Microsoft's Office User Experience Team

"By the time we got to Word 2002 we had 30 toolbars plus hierarchical cascading multi-level menus. So what do you do when you're a UI designer? You introduce a new area on the side, which was the Task Pane, and you pack more things into this huge new rectangle.

"But we never took the time to move features from the menus and toolbars into the task pane, so it became a very inefficient UI because there's another rock to look under!

"In Office 2000 we took the first step in addressing bloat with personalised menus and toolbars, but this was not a successful feature at all," Harris admitted. "In the corporate field it was almost always deployed off."

Harris said that Office 2007 offered his team "the opportunity to start with a clean slate. We have the benefit of hindsight to ask what is the right UI for a productivity application like Office?"

"The ribbon is both a new interaction design and a feature reorganisation based on the concept of contextualisation. When you select an object, the set of tools you need are always right at hand and any tools that aren't relevant are not.

Office 2007 beta 2
[Click to enlarge] Explosion of menus,
toolbars and taskpanes in the new Word.

"Many commands work only with certain objects -- for example, there are 300 Word commands just for using tables. But if you're not working with a table then you can get them out of the way and suddenly the core set is very usable, it's more like Word was 15 years ago. And if the feature isn't in the ribbon it's not anywhere else -- there are no toolbars to turn on, no features hidden or command turned off, no more rocks to look under," he said.

In addition to the 'glammed-up' GUI, Office 2007 also sees Microsoft cut its ties with the proprietary Office formats such as DOC, XLS and PPT. While these remain available to users as part of Office's "compatibility mode", the equivalent XML file formats (docx, xlsx and pptx) are applied as out-of-the-box defaults.

Microsoft will encourage its enterprise customers to test-drive the Office 2007 preview edition so they can experiment with these "X files" and help build momentum for wider adoption of what it has christened the Open XML standard. However, there is speculation that the Open XML spec may not be anointed by the ISO as an alternative to the OpenDocument Format.

Word beta 2

While the long-awaited Beta 2 build of Windows Vista Beta 2 is currently restricted to members of the MSDN and TechNet developer communities, Microsoft says it will make a wider public release of the beta in coming weeks. If the company follows the form of its Office 2007 Beta 2 campaign, Vista may also soon appear on the coverdiscs of local PC magazines.

David Flynn travelled to Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.

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