A whole new kind of Office

Originally published in Media Magazine, Winter 2007

It’s a standard complaint among software users that subsequent versions of programs are often just incremental improvements over the last. At times, it seems they’re nothing more than thinly-veiled attempts to slip more money from our pockets.

Microsoft’s Office 2007 package may be the exception that proves the rule. It really is different. Or at least, it feels different.

I’ve been taking a close look at the beta version.

The retail product is supposed to hit the shelves early in 2007.

Microsoft’s software engineers have embarked on an ambitious experiment in social engineering, nothing less than an attempt to redefine the way we interact with computer programs.

For those of us who have grown familiar to the look and feel of Office programs, it’s going to be a bit of a shock.

Gone are the familiar menus and toolbars, only to be replaced by a new animal called “the ribbon” that combines the functions of both. It’s supposed to make the whole software experience easier.

Tabs at the top of the screen resemble menus, but don’t have the familiar labels for file, edit, view etc.

Instead, you get tabs such as home, formulas, review, and data. Each of these represents a different “task area,” as Microsoft likes to call them.

Choosing these tabs switches between ribbons with colourful icons that take you to frequently used features.

The new setup takes some getting used to, especially if you have been using Office or similar programs for some time.  Experienced users will find themselves hunting to find familiar features.

It’s all still there, but it’s like they moved and renamed all the roads in your favourite neighborhood.

Sometimes, the new interface seems to have redundancies built upon redundancies upon redundancies. For example, the home ribbon provides at least four different ways to call up the format cells dialogue box. I’m not sure that’s an improvement over the old format menu, which got you there in two easy clicks. Thankfully, for those so inclined, the old keyboard shortcuts seem to work much as they always did.

To Microsoft’s credit, the new interface will likely make things a lot easier for newcomers. It puts features that used to be buried behind two or three mouse clicks right in front of the user.

Microsoft says this enhances the programs’ “discoverability.” The icons are large and easy to read and if you hold the mouse pointer over one of them, a micro-tutorial on the feature will pop up.

Much of what used to be under the file menu now resides under a big, round Office button at the left end of the ribbon. A mini toolbar at the top of the screen provides instant access to printing, saving, undoing, and any other feature you choose to put there.

The new user interface is used in Word,Access, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

Excel is perhaps the most commonly used program for CAR, so let’s take a closer look at how the new interface is implemented there.

The home ribbon contains many of the features that used to be accessible from the formatting toolbar and format menu, including everything you need to change the size and appearance of what you type, and apply currency, percentage and other number formats.

The formulas ribbon gives you access to mini menus with dozens of functions, divided into useful categories such as text manipulation, math and date/time functions.

The data tab groups many useful features, including importing from text and the web, sorting and filtering. It’s all quite logical, and cute to boot.

There are also some improvements that go beyond reorganization. Most remarkable is the end of the tyranny of row limits. Well, not quite the end; but instead of a maximum 64,000 or so rows, you can have 1 million. And instead of 256

columns, you can have 16,000. According to the formula I ran in Excel 2007, that’s more than 16 billion cells.

The biggest change in Access is the disappearance of the familiar database window, with its tabs for tables, queries, forms and the like.

It is replaced by a pane running down the left hand side of the screen providing immediate access to all of the objects (tables, queries etc) in the database. You are offered several ways to

organize the objects, for example by date created, by table, or by object type.

One thing I like very much is the way the new Access organizes data imports (and exports).

They have their own well-labelled ribbon. One previously excruciating task has been made much easier. Saving the specifications of an import is no longer the convoluted process it used to be. When you do an import, you are now automatically

offered the opportunity to save the specs.

Repeating the import is as easy as clicking an icon, and picking from a list. Neat.

Unfortunately, the inner workings of Access are pretty much the same as always. The program retains many of the internal limits that make it impractical for use with very large datasets and ensure it will continue to be the poor sister in the database world. With Microsoft now giving away a stripped-down version of SQL Server, and the always-free MySQL getting better and better, Access is becoming increasingly marginalized.

Still, its ease of use will likely continue to make it popular among those new to CAR and databases.

At the end of the day, the core feature set in all of the Office 2007 programs is an awful lot like that in their predecessors, even with the impressive new user interface. Which raises the question of whether it is worth spending what will surely be several hundred dollars to upgrade to the newer version. Put another way, will this admittedly user-friendly interface be enough to persuade people to keep buying the expensive Office suite rather than downloading Open Office or using the web-based freebies from the likes of Google? Those other programs are getting awfully  ood, even if they do use the old-fashioned menus and toolbars. Microsoft takes the real risk that users who like the old way of doing things will simply stick with their trusty Office 2000 or 2003, or migrate to one of the other products.

That said, there is a huge corporate customer base, much of which will upgrade as a matter of course, and some computers will come bundled with the new software.

It will also be interesting to see if the likes of Corel follow Microsoft’s decision to redesign the user experience, or if Microsoft will be all alone in this.

For now though, the folks in Redmond have come up with an impressive new-old product, one that may finally be worth the extra money that will surely slip from our pockets.