10 tough questions about Office 2007

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.

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.


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