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Thinking About Office Productivity - 04 Oct 2005

As I mentioned in last week's Windows IT Pro UPDATE, Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005 was supposed to be all about Windows Vista, Microsoft's oft-delayed next-generation Windows version, but the surprise stars of the show were Longhorn Server (due in 2007) and Microsoft Office 12, the next version of Office. Set to ship alongside Vista in late 2006, Office 12 will work only with Vista and Windows XP (not Windows 2000 or Windows 9x). But the big news is that Microsoft, for the first time ever, is dramatically changing the Office UI with this release.

Office has always exposed its many commands through a series of menus and toolbars. The problem is that, as Office has gotten more complex and has added many commands, the menu/toolbar interface has proven untenable. Microsoft likes to point to a fun statistic to show why this is the case: Whereas the first version of Microsoft Word (an MS-DOS-based application) sported about 100 commands, Word 2003 includes more than 1500 commands.

In versions earlier than Office 12, Microsoft made various attempts at exposing this functionality because its feature request lists were full of features that Office had already implemented but that users couldn't find. Indeed, the past two or three versions of Office have been devoted almost exclusively to exposing preexisting functionality in new ways. That's why we've seen debatably useful features such as Smart Tags and the task pane in Office 2003 and Office XP.

In Office 12, all of that work, and the menu/toolbar interface of old, are being thrown out. Rather than "paint the pig" as Microsoft did in previous Office updates, Office 12 is being completely reengineered with an innovative UI that puts the most commonly-needed features right up front. There are several new UI elements that enable this change.

First, the menus and toolbars have been almost completely replaced by a system of tabs and ribbons that run across the top of each application. The tabs isolate related functionality into groups, each of which appears in a ribbon roughly the size of two or three toolbars that runs across the top of each application. In Word 12, for example, you start with the Write tab selected. Below that tab are ribbon groups such as Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, Quick Formatting, Proofing, and Find. In each group are the most commonly needed commands. So, the Font group includes font name and size selection, font formatting (bold, italics, underline, and so on), and other related commands. And because Font is the most often-needed group in the Write group, it's located right below the tab (not arbitrarily placed at the far left side of the ribbon). Thus it'll be right where your mouse is when you select that tab. Smart.

One of the many other innovative aspects about this approach is that Microsoft is finally giving users a little credit. In past Office versions, Microsoft assumed that users would be better served by making each of the Office applications look similar, with similar toolbars and menu commands. But although that's a cute theory, it was never backed by usability research. It turns out that users are smarter than that and able to handle the different commands that each unique application requires. What's sad, of course, is that some applications--notably Microsoft Office Access, which doesn't work with documents at all--were ill-served by the familiar UI requirements of earlier Office applications. As a result, the Access UI is an illogical mess, which Microsoft intends to fix in Access 12.

What this all means is that the rules of the game have changed. In the past--that is, before PDC 2005--virtually anyone familiar with Office would've argued that office-productivity suites really had nowhere to go. After all, word processing is word processing, and the task of entering text doesn't really change much over the years. But then here comes Microsoft, changing things completely and nonarbitrarily. The Office 12 UI is one of those things you simply have to use to appreciate. Screenshots and descriptions don't do it justice. Microsoft generally overstates its ability to innovate, but this is one area in which the company is doing fantastic work and doing so in a risky fashion with a product that generates more than one-third of its revenues.

That said, alternatives are available and Sun Microsystem's latest release, StarOffice 8, is worth thinking about. Based on the free office productivity suite, StarOffice 8 includes five core applications--Base (database), Calc (spreadsheet), Draw (graphics), Impress (presentation), and Write (word processing)--most of which offer excellent competition and compatibility with their Office 2003 equivalents. The best StarOffice 8 feature, however, is it's price: The product retails for $69.95 (download version), but businesses can get volume discounts that lower the price to $35 a desktop, far below what you'd pay for Office. It also includes unique and potentially useful features such as the ability to save documents directly to Adobe Acrobat PDF format and compatibility with the new Open Document format. It runs on both Windows and Linux and is visually similar to Office 2003.

Now, StarOffice isn't perfect. It doesn't include an Office Outlook, OneNote, or InfoPath competitor, for example. But it's an ideal and inexpensive solution for office users with simple needs. There's no reason to spend the money on Office 2003 if users don't need all that functionality.

Finally, Office 2003 users should know that Microsoft just shipped Office 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2). SP2 doesn't add any major new features per se (Outlook 2003 SP2 does include a weak new antiphishing feature that's useful in limited scenarios) but instead bundles previously released hotfixes and updates (including SP1, which was a major update). You can find out more about Office 2003 SP2 on the Microsoft Web site.


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