Microsoft Office has become a bastion of the PC work environment, with each new release over the years incorporating an extensive array of new features. Over time, however, individual Office applications such as Word have evolved into monstrous hydras with thousands of different functions hiding in what has become, for many users, a bewildering maze.
To cut back on clutter, the software giant has completely redesigned the user interface (UI) for the next iteration of its Office software suite, codenamed Office 12. But the move to a radically different UI is clearly a gamble. At stake is a cash cow that generates billions of dollars each year for Microsoft. And waiting in the wings are new open-source alternatives from OpenOffice.org and Sun Microsystems that hope to capitalize on any missteps Microsoft might make.
"I think it is a move in a positive direction," said research director Jim Murphy at AMR Research in Boston. "There may be some pain and some productivity loss at the outset, but the changes I've seen will affect productivity in positive ways once people get over the initial shock."
Murphy believes there has been a lot of hype about how vulnerable Microsoft is. "On the other hand, there is significant risk for Microsoft if it doesn't move forward," he said. "The present interface has gotten really bulky and hard to deal with, and it is not architected for the future, either."
A Results-Oriented Design
When the revamped suite hits the market in the second half of 2006, Office 12's new UI will present commands from the perspective of users rather than software developers, reported Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft group program manager for the Office User Experience. Microsoft's number-one goal was "to focus on what [users] want to do rather than on how they do it," Larson-Green said in a recent online interview.
The new UI abandons the nested menu format found in past Office suites in favor of a "ribbon" that runs across the top of the window in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and in the sections (calendar, mail, notes, and contacts) of Outlook.
Within this ribbon, commands are limited to those directly relevant to the task at hand. Users will be able to point and click on the ribbon to get the specific features they want. The document-zooming tool also is moving from a drop-down menu to a slider bar that appears at the bottom of each window.
In addition, Office 12 will incorporate a "quick launch toolbar" that users can customize to include their most frequently used commands. All of these changes should help to cut down on the number of mouse clicks needed to complete specific tasks.
Gaining access to help topics in Office often can be a wild goose chase for users who do not know, or are unable to recall, the specific terms that Microsoft uses to describe the suite's individual capabilities. To fix this, Office 12 will incorporate "super tooltips" that will provide users with immediate access to information about any command without having to initiate a help topic search.
A More Visual Approach
The Office 12 UI also will embrace a more visual approach to document creation and editing. The approach is designed to eliminate a lot of unnecessary steps for those who want to get the job done quickly.
Office 12's "galleries," which will appear almost everywhere in the product, will give users a quick visual representation of the kinds of formatting choices they can make. For example, if editors want to change the overall appearance of a document, they can get a "live preview" of what it would actually look like without having to set up individual elements beforehand.
Word users also will be able to add text boxes simply by clicking on an icon and then choosing the style they want. Or, by scrolling over one of the font choices, authors will be able to preview an entire document in that font immediately.
Moreover, the next version of Word will incorporate image-editing capabilities that will enable users to crop photos as well as to adjust contrast and brightness. And PowerPoint users will be able to convert text into graphics and charts automatically simply by clicking on an icon and then selecting the style they want.
Tools That Users Love to Hate
Office 12 will sport a tool containing the most commonly used text formatting features in Word. Called the "floatie," it will glide over the top of selected text so that the author can implement changes without switching to another tab. However, not everyone is enthusiastic about this feature.
"Some things that Microsoft thinks will be great do have the potential of being annoying," noted Laura DiDio, senior analyst at the Yankee Group. "For example, the 'floatie'—which gives access to the most common text formats—eliminates the mouse trips to the command area, just when I finally have gotten used to the mouse," she noted.
"Now we'll all have to go cold turkey, given that the UI goes to the heart of all the applications we use," DiDio said. "And it's going to take people some time to get used to all the changes."
Another aspect of Office 12 that worries some observers is that the software will try to predict user needs by automatically offering the tools most likely needed, as determined by Microsoft's own research. Previous Office versions have offered features that some users love to hate, with the paper clip cutie being the most obvious example in a line of past Microsoft miscues.
Murphy finds the prospect of further Office automation dubious and has already talked to Microsoft about it. "I want it to be more controllable than before and I want a way to turn things off," he said.
Microsoft is building Instant Messaging (IM) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capabilities into Office 12 to enhance collaboration among workers.
Workers at enterprises where Office applications are integrated with Internet telephony hardware will be able to receive or launch phone calls right from the desktop, as well as engage in IM sessions.
It also is likely that Office 12 will incorporate at least some of the "presence" capabilities of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard so that project collaborators can track one another as they move across multiple computing platforms, such as desktop PCs, smartphones, and laptops. This will enable telephone calls and e-mail messages to be redirected automatically to whatever platform someone is using at any given moment.
In addition, Office 12 will include a function powered by Microsoft's SharePoint technology to help workers engaged in collaborative projects. Documents may be saved "on a central server rather than just channeling it around," Murphy said. "That way everyone can have access to the most recently edited version of any document. And I think that such types of features are going to be attractive to users moving forward."
Mitigating Future Shock
For the most part, Office 12 is expected to be backwards-compatible with previous versions of Microsoft Office, such as Office 2000, Office 2003, and Office XP.
People already familiar with the current .doc, .xls, and .ppt binary file formats will find their work always will be saved in their original format in Office 12 by default. Moreover, during the Office 12 installation process, users will be able to set up the default file formats to continue to work with third-party applications based on earlier MS Office iterations.
Keyboard shortcuts featuring the use of the Ctrl button are expected to remain the same, but those shortcuts that include the use of the Alt button may change. One thing is certain: Users will not be given the option of keeping the same UI look and feel featured in older Office editions, which is one welcome choice to be found in Windows XP.
The Move to XML
In another leap forward, Microsoft is adopting the text-based Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard as the default file formats for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Because XML is a text-based file format, it compresses very well, which is why Microsoft is incorporating industry-standard ZIP compression technology into Office 12. This will enable the suite to shrink the size of individual files by up to 75 percent in comparison to what Office 2003 can achieve today. Moreover, the compression and decompression of Office 12 documents, spreadsheets, and presentations will occur invisibly and automatically.
Office 12 also will include the requisite technology for ensuring the integrity data as documents move throughout networks and beyond corporate firewalls. The use of open XML formats means that Office 12 will be able to break down and store each type of data separately within any given file. Therefore, even if one file component becomes corrupted, the remainder of the document will still open within the application.
This is a major departure from the binary formats used by current versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, in which the corruption of one piece of data prevents the entire file from loading. In those cases where file components do become corrupted, Office 12 applications will be able to detect the damage and even attempt to repair it.
The Office XML Open Formats store each type of data as a separate tag within any document, making data easy to detect and remove. Therefore, personally identifiable information—or even confidential content—can be stripped out of files automatically before any in-house document goes public.
The OpenDocument Compatibility Issue
The European Union and Massachusetts recently decided to mandate the use of OpenDocument—an XML format standardized through the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). Some workers with government contracts might be concerned that Microsoft has decided to go with a proprietary version of XML in Office 12, which might not be compliant with the OASIS standard.
"The significance of OpenDocument is that it conforms to an open standard that allows customers to know what exactly is going on with their file formats, and any changes are public," said Iyer Venkatesan, StarOffice 8 product line manager in Sun Microsystem's Client Systems Group. "It is developed out in the open where everybody can see and participate in the changes.
"It's good to see Microsoft moving to XML, but until they are actually complaint with an open standard, what they offer is still going to be in a proprietary format," Venkatesan added. "But Microsoft probably will have a filter to read OASIS and we'll update our filter [in StarOffice 8] to read theirs."
Improving Document Security
The most popular file formats within Office 12 no longer will feature embedded macros and other executable code, said Microsoft senior vice president Steven Sinofsky in a recent online interview. "Therefore, when information workers receive e-mail messages containing Word, Excel, or PowerPoint attachments, they will be able to open those attachments without having to worry that the documents will execute harmful code." For those workers who need to generate documents that do contain code, Office 12 will include a format with a separate extension for those files, Sinofsky said.
"The idea sounds good because a lot of viruses have used the macro capability of Office for propagation purposes and that's a huge problem," said security expert Ed Moyle. "Having a new extension for this will allow the virus-checking software on e-mail gateways to filter on that particular extension, either to search files coming in with that extension more carefully, or to exclude them altogether."
Yankee Group senior analyst Andrew Jaquith also thinks it's a very positive step that Microsoft is choosing to isolate or trying to distinguish between documents that contain macrocode and documents that just have text and graphics. Nevertheless, Jaquith noted that the proof is in the execution. "It's one thing to say you can't have executable code and another to actually prevent that from happening."
A Whole New Learning Curve
Microsoft says that the user feedback it has been getting on the new Office 12 UI suggests that the learning curve will be small. Larson-Green puts it somewhere between two days and two weeks, depending on the individual's comfort level.
"Like it or not, some people will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into this," DiDio said. "In theory we would all get hands-on training sessions, but what's more likely to happen is you'll be lucky if you even get a half-day session."
Moreover, DiDio only expects 10 percent to 20 percent of the workers who might benefit from training actually getting some. "In many cases, once the upgrade is done you'll be on your own and end up yelling across the office for advice, or simply learn by doing," she said.
But there is hope. "Office 12 will not be so totally different that you can't learn as you go," DiDio added. "And there are always the Dummies books and the Microsoft technical support line to turn to."