10 tough questions about Office 2007

10 tough questions about Office 2007

Summary: Led by its two poker-playing veterans, Microsoft is making a huge bet on Office 2007. Whether they win or lose depends on how customers respond to the massive changes in this version. I've put together a detailed look at the new Office and posed 10 questions that will tell whether Office is a big winner or a bust.

TOPICS: Microsoft

Back in their days on Harvard Yard, college buddies Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer used to blow off classes in favor of marathon poker games. With Office 2007, it looks like they’re reliving those glory days. Microsoft is making a huge bet – really, a series of wagers – that its customers are ready for a massive upgrade to Office and are willing to pay for the privilege.

  • They’ve given the venerable Office interface a complete reworking, getting rid of menus and toolbars and replacing them with a series of ribbons and Mini Toolbars that put common tasks front and center in the main editing window.
  • They’ve scheduled it for simultaneous release with Windows Vista, raising the possibility that the new Office will get lost in the blizzard of hype around the new Windows.
  • They’ve sliced and diced the product for sale in a dizzying array of combinations and prices, potentially confusing consumers and corporate customers alike.

I’ve put together a comprehensive image gallery to help you see how Office 2007 works. Users who will benefit most from the new interface will be knowledge workers who create a wide range of different documents. I’ve tried to differentiate this walkthrough from all those other collections of screen shots you’ve seen in recent weeks by focusing on some of the small details that are likely to make a big difference to any Office user. In this post, I’ll answer some of the questions that I hear most often from Microsoft watchers.

Is the new ribbon-style interface revolutionary, or is it just eye candy?

It really is different. The new design completely eliminates menus and toolbars and has the effect of “flattening” the Office interface so that most common tasks are only one or two clicks away. The idea is to reduce the number of dialog boxes you have to open to perform everyday tasks, and the effort is largely successful. It’s not perfect, however, and power users in particular will be irked by the almost complete inability to personalize the interface. You get one and only one customizable toolbar, and the emphasis on common tasks means that some power user features are buried.

Why all the different packages?

A few months ago, Microsoft announced that it would sell Office 2007 in seven separate packages. Last month, word of an unannounced eighth option, a new Ultimate Edition, leaked out and was confirmed by a Microsoft spokesperson. The product matrix is much more confusing than the equivalent mix of Office 2003 editions; in particular, I expect potential buyers to be confused by the decision to drop Outlook from the Home and Student edition and add OneNote only in the Home and Student, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions. There’s also no sign that Microsoft has thought through the potential to offer easy Office upgrades, as they’ve done with Windows Vista.

What’s new? What’s changed?

Much of the effort in Office 2007 is devoted to making it easier to work with existing features. That’s a logical response to the (possibly apocryphal) reports that 80% of the requests for new features in Office are for features that already exist. Still, there’s plenty of new stuff to go around, including an easy way to add equations to Word documents, some amazing conditional formatting tools in Excel, and a slew of easy-to-access templates available online and in the shrink-wrapped package.

What’s not to like?

One of the most common complaints I heard when I asked readers for their feedback on Beta 2 was grumbling about the constant shifting from tab to tab that the new interface requires, followed closely by disbelief that a “classic mode” isn’t available. There’s no doubt that Office veterans who have command sequences embedded in their muscle memory will have to do plenty of unlearning.

Isn’t this going to require a lot of retraining?

Microsoft says their goal is to completely eliminate the need for training. That’s an ambitious goal, and it’s probably a good way to motivate a UI design team, but it doesn’t play out in practice. Every Office deployment requires a matching investment in training, and this one is no exception. The users who will benefit the most from the new interface will be knowledge workers who create a wide range of different documents; they’re much more likely to discover new capabilities and produce more interesting documents. Task-oriented workers will need a new set of instruction sheets.

Is the price right?

Microsoft unveiled the details of Office pricing earlier than usual for this upgrade. The suggested retail prices are identical to those for Office 2003. (The howls over the $679 price tag for Office 2007 Ultimate Edition ignore the fact that its predecessor, Office Small Business Management Edition 2006, lists for a mere $10 less.)

Will consumers buy it?

For most consumers, retail prices are a non-issue, as Office versions tend to come bundled with new PCs. I expect to see some tempting upgrade offers in early 2007, and the Home and Student edition, with its $149 price tag and a license that’s good for three machines, should be a huge hit.

Will corporate customers buy it?

For the past six years, Microsoft has struggled to convince corporate customers that an Office upgrade is necessary. Corporate customers have generally stayed with older Office editions and have mostly chosen to upgrade with major hardware refreshes. I don’t expect corporate buyers to change their behavior with this release.

How close is this beta to the final release?

Office user interface guru Jensen Harris says "pretty close":

[I]if you've been holding out hope that we're going to be replacing the Ribbon with a ray-traced speech-enabled version of Clipppy--or any other major change of overall direction for that matter--I’m sorry to say it won't be happening. … The general interaction model of the Ribbon, the mechanisms by which we lay out and scale the tabs, and the kinds of controls we expose are likely to remain the same. We're likely finished building galleries for features and finished hooking up Live Preview. The interaction design of the Mini Toolbar, and the general look and feel of the Office menu and Options dialog boxes are very similar to how they will be in the final product. In a sense, if you squint, most things already feel similar to how they will feel in RTM.

There will be some fit-and-finish changes in the UI, along with 1000 or so changes to the content on the various ribbons throughout the Office product line. And of course, we can expect improved performance and reliability between now and the final release.

When will it be ready?

The official launch date is January 2007, with availability to corporate customers in November 2006. Given the quality of the Beta 2 release, I see no reason to think that Microsoft won’t hit these dates. In fact, the only thing that is likely to cause a schedule slippage is a glitch in the release timetable for Windows Vista.

It’s a big bet for Microsoft. The big question now is whether Office customers will be willing to step up to the table and play along.

Topic: Microsoft

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  • Ready!

    I've been happier and happier with each new version. From 97 to 2000 to 2002 and to our final 2003 version of MS Office Professional.

    Can't wait to use the newest version, I think once people get over the CHANGES, it will be revolutionary in its interface.

    Let the open source people compete by making something just as good, just as powerful...but for free.

    It will be good for everyone.
    • Phineas Barnum had it right...

      Even if he didn't actually say "there's a sucker born every minute." He did say that "every crowd has a silver lining." I am sure that you will joined by a like-minded crowd and the silver will flow to Redmund...
  • I can see that the neww Office 2007 will make it...

    much easier for pointy haired managers to make beautiful and totally worthless documents and PP pitches. All of the screen shots made it clear that easy formatting was the biggest motivation for the change in UI paradigm. What would make more sense is a way to make sure that every paragraph, sentence, and word is not formatted to be completely different from every other item, which is the usual modus operandi employed by idiot's impressed with format and not content.

    Another annoyance has to do with Office phoning in to MS to get the latest templates and formats. How many do you need and how little imagination does it take to need even the ones included in the install CD?

    I see the new Office as a way to make the most mundane and senseless content look "marvelous darling."

    I use Office 2003 Premium. Will I buy into this mess? NO. Actually I could still be using Office 97 except my Office mates use later stuff as it came on their corporate ball and chains, er I mean Dell computers...
    • Browsing a web page is not "phoning in"

      <p><em>Office phoning in to MS </em>

      <p>Displaying the contents of a web page listing available templates is "phoning in"? Oy. My head hurts.

      If you don't want to see those templates, don't click that tab. If you don't click that tab, you don't go to that web page.
      Ed Bott
      • PS: It's turned off by default

        To get updates from Office Online you have to click a link in the orange bar at the bottom of the Spotlight page.
        Ed Bott
        • What on Earth is a Spotlight page? [NT]

          • That;'s the name of the live help page

            When you click File, New, you open a dialog box where the top half contains your templates and the bottom half contains links to Office Online stuff. That bottom half is called the Spotlight page. You have to click a link at the bottom of that page before it makes a connection.
            Ed Bott
          • It sounds more and more like Office is...

            moving to subscription model where you really have to be connected to the MS mothership to get anything done.

            "Spotlight Page" sounds just like the kind of name a marketing weenie would coin. I guess it's supposed to allude to peering into the dark and finding something that's in your way - er no, I mean seeing in the dark of the endless content of the Internet - uh no, maybe it means illuminating the dark with your "brillance."

            It's actually kind of funny. Maybe the stand-up comics will take this one just like they did with the Start button to stop Windows :)
          • Just as you are connected to Google mothership

            for all the online services that it is offering...Google spreadsheet anyone?? Not only will you be connected to Google your sensitive data will also stay on their servers and according to their privacy policy they can use the data as they see fit...meaning profiling you and presenting you with targetted ads. What do you think your gmail id does??
          • Wonderful! (NOT!!)

            Oh joy! I click "File, New" and I DON'T get a new file? Good thinking! When I click "new", I don't mean template, stale, old, or anything but "new". And I certainly don't need "help" being called "spotlight". But who cares - I wouldn't touch this crap on a bet. (Office 2000 does far more than enough - and looks better than 2003.)
          • Nothing has changed

            Just as in every previous Office version, if you want a new blank file based on the default template, you press Ctrl+N.

            Clicking File, New opens a dialog box that lets you choose a template. That's the way Office has worked for at least six years now.

            Some people actually use templates.
            Ed Bott
      • Really Ed?

        My Word 2003 tries to connect regularly with the MS Office site to look up words and other resources in a pane that is in Word. Now why opn earth should my word processor need to connect to the Internet at all? whether it's Word or an IE driven "Help" pane is immaterial to this discussion. I don't need or want my word processor connecting to the Internet for a number of reasons. Privacy and security come to mind first but these are not the only reasons.
        • You approved it

          When you set up Office and use Help for the first time, it asks if you want to connect to Microsoft's servers to update Help content and the Research pane. You must have said yes. If you don't want those connections, you can disable them easily. Look for the Online Content Settings link at the bottom of the Help pane. It's not exactly buried.
          Ed Bott
          • I remember a whole boat-load of options...

            when installing Office Pre, but not that setting. BTW I had already disabled the Online Content. Thanks for the "tip."
      • Phoning in...

        I use Office 2003. The other day I took my notebook in to work, where I have no Network connectivity anf MS-Word decided it was going to have an error. Couldn't work on my file. Restated work, went through the error routine, restated the PC, Same thing, over and over.
        At night I tried again, same thing.
        Hooked the NB to ne network to ee if I could go online to find out the cause.
        Started MS-Word to see the error. Guess what?
        No more error - works like a champ.
        MS-Word - Phone HOME?????
  • Thanks for the screengrabs

    Interesting to see. As with any major interface overhaul, it's going to see lots of resistance. Lots. It doesn't matter if it's better than the previous one, people (and companies) have work they have to accomplish, and it has to be done as quickly as possible. Any interruption to established workflows is going to be problematic. As an example, it took my company years to switch from OS9 to OSX. Obviously OSX is vastly superior, but our production crew simply didn't have the time to re-learn how to do everything. They had books to produce.

    One other note--the Mini Toolbar. Not sure of the Windows version has this already, but something similar is in place on the Mac version, whenever you make a change to a document, you get some little toolbar that pops up and usually obscures the text. It's highly annoying, and you either have to mouse away from what you're trying to do, or deselect and reselect again in order to actually view the text you want to work with.
    tic swayback
  • Here's another for you Ed...

    I write a lot of big proposals that have several contributers. When I select a section of text, it is usually to move and arrange the content so that it is readable and understandable. If every time I select something, a "mini-ribbon" (what a stupid moniker) pops up, that will really, really slow me down. I personally detest any application, machine (like the newer copiers) or other contrivance that slows me down because it "thinks" (artificial intelligence is predicated upon artificial stupidity) it knows what I want and tries to do it. The stupid Word select that is the default in Word 2003 is a prime example.

    I know what I want to do and I know how to do it. I still have my keyboard templates from Word for DOS 4 and Word for Windows 2. Did you know that <Shift>F3 will toggle through several capitalizations on selected text even on Word 2003?

    The screen shots for Office 2007 make it apparent that MS is attempting to dumb-down the interface. That's great for hacks making recipes for the Bridge Club. It sucks for people that have to go to work and make money. I don't see the Corporate VPs rushing out to make this upgrade either.

    Collaboration and version control with better ties to SharePoint extensions and servers would have gotten my vote. Not this piddle...
    • So turn it off

      <p><em>If every time I select something, a "mini-ribbon" (what a stupid moniker) pops up, that will really, really slow me down. </em>

      <p>As I showed in the Image Gallery, there's an option on the Personalization tab to turn off the Mini Toolbar if it bothers you: http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?page_id=75&page=8

      <p>And yes, there are lots of hooks to SharePoint extensions and servers, but that's a topic for another day.
      Ed Bott
      • It's so much easier not to buy it in the first place. [NT]

        • Yes, Edlin is a perfectly good editor

          Don't know why anyone would want to use anything else.
          Ed Bott