On Tuesday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates unveiled Office 12 publicly for the first time. The surprisingly innovative office productivity suite will move away from the commands-based interface that all Office products have used and will feature a task-based interface that bubbles relevant functionality to the user as needed. Microsoft officials I spoke with at Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005 in Los Angeles say this new Office interface will make users more productive and make it easier to accomplish complicated tasks.
"This new user interface is designed around the ways people actually think and work," Group Product Manager Dan Leach told me in a post-PDC 2005 keynote briefing. In the Office 12 products, which will ship alongside Windows Vista in late 2006, the familiar menu and toolbars have been replaced with tabs and user interface elements called galleries, which bundled related functionality together. For example, in Microsoft Word 12, tabs such as Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, and Review are arrayed along the top of the window. When you perform certain tasks, such as inserting an image, new tabs appear as needed. And each tab exposes a range of galleries.
In his keynote address, Gates noted that the change was needed because Office has become so feature-packed. A menu-and-toolbar UI worked fine when Office products like Word utilized only 100 commands, as the first version did 20 years ago. But Word 2003 features over 1500 commands and includes a whopping 35 toolbars as a result. Clearly, the old way of doing things is outdated.
Office 12 will run on both Windows XP and Windows Vista, Microsoft says, and it does not utilize any of the newer Vista-era technologies such as Avalon (Windows Presentation Foundation) or the WinFX programming libraries. That's because it was co-developed with Avalon, Leach told me, and the Office team began working on the new UI so long ago. A first beta version of Office 12 is due before the end of the year.