Microsoft rolls up Office ribbon

After beta tester complaints, company lets users set new menu system to automatically minimize when not in use.
Written by Angus Kidman, Contributor

Microsoft has modified its new interface for Office 2007 after complaints from beta testers that the "ribbon" system took up too much screen space.

Office 2007 had ditched the traditional drop-down menu approach of most Windows applications in favor 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 said the new interface would make it easier for people 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, people can set the ribbon to automatically minimize 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 is a result of complaints from some beta testers. "One of the feedbacks we got is that it takes up too much room," he said during a presentation at Microsoft's Tech.Ed 2006 conference last week in Sydney.

Despite the change, Microsoft remains committed to using the ribbon interface, though 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.

The product "will face some serious foot-dragging at both the individual and corporate levels," Forrester Research analyst Nate Root wrote in a 2005 paper analyzing 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 people mouse over individual ribbon elements.

The current File menu, accessed from a Start-like button in the top-left corner, will also have its name changed to 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 smaller than those of existing Office formats.

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