Microsoft Reinvents the Office Productivity Suite

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In the News

- Microsoft Reinvents the Office Productivity Suite

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by Paul Thurrott, [email protected]

Microsoft Reinvents the Office Productivity Suite

The strategy is classic: When a competitor is gaining on you, simply change the rules of the game. It's the reason so many automobile makers claim their products are "best in class," all the while maintaining that they're also, not coincidentally, in a class by themselves. But with Microsoft Office 12, due in late 2006 alongside Windows Vista, Microsoft isn't just changing the rules of the game. In this case, the software giant is doing something it hasn't done with Office in more than a decade: innovating on a grand scale.
If you haven't yet used Office 12, you can be forgiven for thinking that Microsoft is simply moving around icons and toolbars in the UI. But that isn't the case. As the company noted last week at Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) 2005, its Office products have matured dramatically since it released the first product, Microsoft Office Excel, more than 20 years ago. The first version of Microsoft Office Word, for example, supported about 100 commands in just a few simple menus and toolbars. But Word 2003, the latest version, supports more than 1500 commands and sports more than 30 toolbars as a result.
So Microsoft took the bold and unanticipated step of completely overhauling the Office UI. I find it astonishing that no one saw it coming--not competitors, not analysts, not users. The past few Office updates made baby steps toward improving the interface, with Microsoft adding small features such as task panes and smart tags that bubble up previously hidden functionality. And while competitors such as and Sun Microsystems' StarOffice were busy copying the last Office interface, Microsoft was busy hatching something new.
The Office 12 UI is based on a new paradigm that almost completely removes the menus and toolbars of earlier versions. The main UI element, code-named Ribbon, is a band that appears across the top of all Office 12 applications. Inside this band is a collection of results-oriented feature galleries that include the most commonly needed features for the task you're performing. For example, the default task in Word is writing, so when you launch Word, the writing ribbon appears, and the most common writing options (e.g., font, paragraph, formatting, proofing) appear onscreen.
Other new UI elements include a tab bar above the Ribbon band that lets you select command tabs (e.g., Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, Developer) and a wonderfully implemented Floatie (yes, that's its code name) that pops up a handy contextual formatting toolbar next to your cursor. There's also a vestigial File menu, although Microsoft has completely overhauled it to include several application-centric options. And for toolbar jockeys, Microsoft lets you stack a list of commonly accessed options in a small Quick Launch toolbar next to the File menu item.
People have been confused about these and other Office 12 UI changes. Some have opined that the new interface will require users to learn new skills and that businesses will need to train users to use it. Neither of these concerns is valid. During a lengthy hands-on session with an up-to-date Office 12 build last week, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the interface and the way it presents features and functionality, much of which I never knew existed. And most of your existing skills will still work, including most keyboard shortcuts.
Give Microsoft some credit for this change. Office is an expensive product that sells largely to staid enterprises, and these customers have come to expect a predictable experience. Indeed, Office's $11 billion in annual revenues accounts for more than 25 percent of Microsoft's total annual revenues, and the company certainly doesn't want to jeopardize that figure. I like the fact that Microsoft is taking a chance and doing what many people thought was impossible: reinventing Office and not doing so arbitrarily.
There's a lot more going on in Office 12. I'll have more to say later this week in an exhaustive second Office 12 Preview for the SuperSite for Windows.

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