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Office 2007 Public Beta Now Available

By the time you read this, Microsoft will have announced the release of Office 2007 Beta 2, a version of its upcoming office productivity suite that will be made available to the public. This is a calculated move by Microsoft, and one that you might consider taking advantage of. The software giant is concerned that its users--freeloaders, one and all--see no good reason to upgrade to the latest Office versions as they're released. They're productive enough, they believe, with the office suite they're already using.

This belief may actually be misguided. Though the past several Office versions were relatively minor upgrades, Office 2007 is a major new release that completely rethinks how users interact with productivity applications. In fact, the Office 2007 UI is so innovative--a term I honestly don't use in conjunction with Microsoft all that often--that I expect it to eventually appear in third party applications and, perhaps, in a future version of the Windows shell. It really is something special.

To understand why a new user interface was necessary, let's step back a bit and recall how Office evolved over the years. In 1989, Word 1.0 included about 100 commands, and it needed a very simple menu system--with no submenus, mind you--and two simple toolbars. Given the toolset, the UI worked just fine, and over the intervening decade and a half, the menu and toolbar-based UI has established itself as the way we interact with commands in the OS and most applications.

Today, applications are far more complex and Office, in particular, has outgrown the menu and toolbar-based UI. Word 2003, by comparison, has over 1500 commands. To support this massive toolset, the application sports a whopping 31 toolbars, along with 19 task panes and a number of smart tags, the latter two of which were designed to help people more easily discover functionality. But they didn't solve the underlying problem. "Ultimately, the task pane is just another rectangle," says Jensen Harris, the Lead Program Manager for the Office User Experience at Microsoft. "There are too many places to look for functionality."

Microsoft tried to improve the Office interface in dramatic ways between 1989 and 2003. In addition to the aforementioned task panes and smart tags, Office picked up nested dialog boxes, right-click context menus, tooltips, tabbed dialogs, various Intellisense features, hierarchical and dynamic menus and submenus, Clippy, and numerous other features. By the 2003 versions, Office had grown into a bloated, impenetrable nightmare that outworn its many menus and toolbars. It was bursting at the seams.

So now we have a new Office UI, and it's a blockbuster. It's amazing because many people (incorrectly, as it turns out) figured there wasn't much one could do to improve the ways people interact with productivity applications. After all, what could you do to make a word processor dramatically better at this point? It's been done before, and alternative products such as Word Perfect or certainly haven't done anything to advance the UI. They work just like previous Microsoft Office versions.

There are plenty of new features in Office 2007, and if there's enough interest, we can certainly examine them in the near future. This time, I'd like to examine the new Office UI and explain why I think it's innovative. It is worth noting, however, that not all Office 2007 applications will share the new UI; some, instead, will continue to use the old-style menu and toolbar UI used by previous Office versions. Microsoft says that subsequent Office versions will move the new UI to other applications.

In Office 2007, Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint are being completely redone. Outlook, meanwhile, uses the old-style UI in its main application window but adopts the new UI in all other windows (such as New Email or New Appointment).

So what is this new UI? Microsoft calls it a results-oriented user interface. It is based on a few simple UI constructs, and there are almost no menus or toolbars to be found anywhere. At the topmost level of each application window there is a pane called the ribbon which contains logical groups of commands. The ribbon for each Office application has been designed individually, and some applications--especially Access and PowerPoint--benefit greatly from this change. In the past, Microsoft only wanted to ensure that all Office applications were visually very similar in the false hope that familiarity would help users learn new applications more quickly.

At the top of the ribbon, you'll see a row of tabs. Each of these tabs exposes a different ribbon view, complete with its own set of context-sensitive commands. In Word, you'll see tabs for Home (the default tab view), Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, and View. But there are also contextual tabs that only appear when needed. So, for example, if you insert a table in Word, you'll get a new Table tab, which only appears when the table is selected. Likewise, if you insert a graphic, you'll see a new tab related to pictures.

Some ribbon groups contain another new Office 2007 UI construct, the Gallery, which provides a set of graphical and attractive formatting results, which will be applied to whatever objects are selected in the current document. And a new Live Preview feature (new to Microsoft, that is: It debuted almost a decade ago in Corel WordPerfect), lets you preview the changes any Gallery option will make before applying it. That means less going back and forth, applying changes and then trying to figure out how to undo them when they don't look right.

What all this amounts to is simple: New users will be able to discover functionality more quickly. Experienced users will be able to a new keyboard compatibility mode to discover where old favorites exist in the new UI. And all users will benefit from the results-oriented UI, which really, really works. I consider myself a Word expert, and I've been blown away by how quickly I've adapted to the new way of doing things. It's really neat.

And, now, it's available to one and all. I don't have a direct download link available yet, but my guess is that you'll be able to find out more about downloading or ordering Office 2007 Beta 2 soon from the Microsoft Office Web site. Check it out.

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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