Office 2007 has ditched the traditional drop-down menu approach of most Windows applications in favour of the ribbon, which displays functions in new categories such as Home, Insert and Mailing in a strip across the top of the screen.
Microsoft says the new interface makes it easier for users to access the wide range of features in applications such as Word, Excel and Access.
However, in the next technical refresh of the Office 2007 beta, users can set the ribbon to automatically minimise whenever it is not being used, effectively making the ribbon headings look like traditional menus. (Windows has long offered a similar auto-hide option for the taskbar.)
Microsoft Australia technical specialist John Hodgson said the change came about after complaints from some customers. "One of the feedbacks we got is that it takes up too much room," he said during a presentation at Tech.Ed 06 in Sydney.
Despite the change, Microsoft remains committed to using the ribbon interface, although it isn't included in all Office components. Visio, for example, has no ribbon options at all, and Outlook does not use the ribbon in all contexts.
The changes to the Office interface are expected to meet some resistance from users familiar with older versions.
The product "will face some serious foot-dragging at both the individual and corporate levels," Forrester analyst Nate Root wrote in a 2005 paper analysing the new interface.
One other change in the next technical refresh, due for release to beta testers in the near future, actually consumes more screen space by offering large 'text tips' when users mouse over individual ribbon elements.
The current File menu, accessed from a Start-like button in the top left-hand corner, will also have its name changed to the Office menu, Hodgson said.
Hodgson also confirmed that Microsoft is working on tools to help enterprises automatically translate existing documents into new file formats being introduced in Office 2007.
"We've been asked by a lot of customers to provide tools to do mass migrations," he said. "There will be tools that will take a million documents and migrate those to the new formats."
One likely incentive for that migration will be reduced storage costs. Microsoft claims that file sizes for the new Office 2007 XML-based formats are up to 75 percent less than existing Office formats.