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Office no place for power users

While elements of Microsoft's Office suite have been in use for more than 20 years, the company now appears unpleasantly convinced that nobody really has any idea how to use the product.

While elements of Microsoft's Office suite have been in use for more than 20 years, the company now appears unpleasantly convinced that nobody really has any idea how to use the product.

I spent yesterday at a technical media preview for Office 2007 (due in November for enterprise customers and early next year for the mass market), and what really struck me about the latest version is what little regard Microsoft seems to have for its existing user base.

In the core Office document creation applications -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- the traditional Windows application arrangement of a top-of-screen menu followed by a toolbar has been replaced with the "ribbon", a super-expanded toolbar which allows you to click on what Microsoft says are the most commonly used features. There's no menu bar at all, and no option to switch back to the "classic" view (unlike, say, Windows Vista, which does give you the choice of ignoring its nice-to-look-at-doesn't-add-much Aero interface).

Microsoft argues that this arrangement makes it easier for users to discover features in the product they might have otherwise missed, which seems vaguely reasonable (the company claims the first version of Word offered less than 100 commands, while the new one has more than 1,000). However, this comes at the cost of making life very difficult for users (like me) who are familiar with the existing menu structure and use it for access to keyboard shortcuts. Some of these are supported "invisibly" (if you use the shortcuts, they'll work, but there's no on-screen cues), while others have disappeared altogether.

The new approach also restricts the ability of individuals or companies to customise Word (or Excel or whatever) for easy access to their own favourite features. You can customise the quick access toolbar which appears below the ribbon, but not the ribbon itself, and some of its features can't be added to the toolbar in any case.

Such a major interface change is likely to prove expensive for enterprises which have developed detailed documentation on performing particular tasks in the Office environment. While every Office upgrade has tended to require tweaking those documents, there's not been a change as big as ditching the menu structure altogether since the individual Office applications shifted from DOS to Windows.

Microsoft officials concede that the company's own research shows that "power users" are going to have the most trouble adapting to the new interface. That seems insane to me when the central Office marketing message -- that Office applications can be combined and integrated for access to a wide range of customised business collaboration processes -- depends on power users being willing to spend time with the product to make that grandiose vision a reality.

Indeed, there's an amusing contradiction involved. Office 2003 was promoted around the notion that already everyone knew how to use those applications, so it made sense to make them the front-end for other tasks like business intelligence and content management. Office 2007 is being promoted with the notion that most of Office's features are so hard to find that a complete revamp is required so that people can use the products. Which version does Microsoft really believe?