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Microsoft Office 2007 Review, Part 2: What's New?

In this part of the review, I'd like to discuss two major changes to Office 2007 that affect the most commonly-used applications in the suite: the new Ribbon user interface and the new XML-based document formats. Both of these changes are major and revolutionary, and set Office 2007 apart, mostly in very good ways, from its predecessors. However, both of these changes are only partially implemented in this release, in the sense that many applications that are ostensibly part of Office 2007 haven't been updated in such dramatic fashion this time around.

The new user interface

Some of the most popular Office 2007 applications--Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and, to a lesser degree, Outlook--have been updated with the new Ribbon user interface (in Outlook, only sub-windows like Mail Message have been updated). These applications have a pleasant graphical sheen of newness about them, but the improvements are not just skin deep. Unfortunately, these new Ribbon-based applications also make the non-updated applications--and, actually, Outlook--look sad by comparison. Once you've used the Ribbon, going back to a menus and toolbars-based UI is actually pretty painful. Hopefully, the rest of the Office suite will be updated to the new UI in a future update.

Though I've already written a lot about the Ribbon UI and how Microsoft came to include it with Office 2007 (see Inside Office 12), I think it might make sense to at least recap what's going on here. Two decades ago, when the first versions of Microsoft Excel and Word began appearing on Windows, these applications utilized the now familiar menu- and toolbar-based UI that's appeared in virtually all operating systems and applications ever since. Back then, and for the next decade or so, that interface made plenty of sense, and users could easily access these applications' various commands.

By the late 1990's, however, Office was getting much more feature-packed and, thanks to the limitations of the menu and toolbar UI, more complex. Microsoft tried to circumvent this issue in various ways over the years. For example, Office 2000 introduced personalized menus and toolbars that hid many infrequently-used commands, an attempt at simplification that was mostly just confusing to users. Office XP added Smart Tags and task panes, the latter of which pushed the user interface for some commands from the top of the applications to the side, where there was more unused space. Office 2003 featured a dramatically improved Outlook version with a unique three-column display that made email more efficient. Microsoft also managed to squeeze out two completely new Office applications with that release, InfoPath and OneNote. Apparently Word would have been made too unwieldy had the functionality from those applications been added to Microsoft's bloated word processing solution.

For Office 2007, Microsoft has finally given up on what the company internally refers to as "painting the pig." For the first time ever, Office has been given a thorough UI overall. The result, called the Ribbon, is a thing of beauty. On Ribbon-enabled applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access, the Ribbon replaces the old menu and toolbar system at the top of the application window. This area of UI is segregated into context-sensitive tabs. Typically, when you first launch one of these applications or open a compatible document , you'll find yourself in the Ribbon's Home tab, which includes the most commonly-needed commands. In Word, for example, you'll see commands related to the clipboard, fonts, paragraphs, styles, and editing. In many cases, you may be surprised to discover that you never leave the Home tab at all.

Figure: The new Ribbon UI in Office 2007 features tabs, groups of commands, fly-over help, and pop-up dialogs.

Remember, however, that the Ribbon is context-sensitive. If you do something a bit more complicated, you might find new tabs appearing--as is the case when you insert a picture into a Word document. Or you'll need to access commands in other tabs occasionally. For example, in Microsoft Word, you enable the application's reviewing functionality in the dedicated Review tab. From here, you can accept and reject changes others have made to a document and perform similar reviewing-related tasks. It's all very intuitive and easy to navigate.

Figure: The Ribbon in Office 2007 is context-sensitive: Work with a certain object, like a Picture, and you'll see tabs specific to that object.

Of course, not everything neatly falls into simple categories. Office, after all, exposes thousands of commands, and while some may be esoteric to you, they're absolutely critical to others. I feel that Microsoft did a great job of logically organizing the Ribbon in each of the fully Ribbonized Office 2007 applications. But there are exceptions. And there are ways you can work around the Ribbon and subtly customize the Office 2007 user experience, though only on an application-by-application basis and not globally.

One thing I really like about the ribbon is that it's dynamic. As you expand the application window horizontally, you'll see more and more commands spill out, maximizing your online real estate. (Another plus: The Ribbon only expands horizontally; it won't get taller and take up valuable editing space.) One thing I don't like about the Ribbon is that you can't extensively customize it: Microsoft provides very limited customization features (see below) but doesn't allow you to remove commands you never need and add those you often do. You also can't move the Ribbon to the other sides of the application window; on a widescreen display, some Office 2007 applications would be more useable if the Ribbon were mounted on the side, rather than the top, of the window. My guess is that the Ribbon's intractability is due to the fact that it is a new UI convention. Microsoft has already released APIs that will let other developers add Ribbon-based UIs to their own applications. I think we'll see better customization options in the future as well.

In Ribbon-based apps, customization occurs largely through the new Quick Access Toolbar, which is a small strip of tiny icons you'll see in the upper left of the application window, to the right of the new Office Button, which I'll explain in a moment. By default, the Quick Access Toolbar includes a few useful commands (In Word, for example, you'll find Save, Undo, and Repeat Typing), but you can add any other command by clicking the little down-arrow next to the toolbar and choosing More Commands from the pop-up menu that appears. You can also optionally move the Quick Access Toolbar below the Ribbon if you'd like.

If you're not a big fan of the Ribbon, and you have basic needs (or a low screen resolution), you could theoretically put all the commands you typically use into the Quick Access Toolbar and then hide the Ribbon. (You hide the Ribbon by double-clicking the current Ribbon tab.) In fact, this is exactly what I did in Word 2007 on my notebook, and the result is a fine-tuned editing tool that really gets out of my way, from a UI perspective, and dedicates the maximum amount of space possible to the job at hand.

While Microsoft doesn't make it possible to change the UI to the old Office 2003 style--and really, that would have been a mistake--Office experts will enjoy the fact that you can easy keep using the old keyboard shortcuts you learned in previous Office versions. That means you can type, for example, ALT + T + W to access Word Count (which used to be found under the Tools menu), even though Word Count is now built into the status bar of the application window. (I still find myself smacking this keyboard comb regularly, though I expect to wean myself off of it eventually.) You can also get onscreen hints about how to access keyboard shortcuts by tapping the ALT key in Ribbonized applications: You'll see little boxes appear in the Ribbon indicating which commands are triggered by which shortcuts. Nice!

The new Office Button essentially replaces the old File menu and the Options dialog in Ribbonized applications. From the menu that appears when you click the button (or tap ALT + F), you can perform common document-related tasks (open a new document, save the current document, print, and access a list of most-recently access documents. You can also access the new Options dialog, which is big, bold, and beautiful. Handy hint: One of the more visual options lets you change the color scheme of the UI. You have only three choices: An XP-like Blue (which is the default), Black, and Silver.

Figure: The new Office Button gives you access to functionality that used to be in the File menu, as well as the Options dialog.

Overall, the new Ribbon-based UI is a winner. After working with this new UI for months, I'm convinced that it will benefit new users dramatically and help them find features they never knew were even available. And as for experienced Office users like myself, the learning curve is short. Various analysts are still predicting that businesses, especially, will face a lengthy and expensive training experience when they move to Office 2007, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that won't be the case at all. Indeed, I can't wait until other complex and feature-packed applications take advantage of the Ribbon. Adobe, for example, could make Photoshop approachable for mere mortals if they used the Ribbon. I'm sure there are plenty of other similar examples.

More problematic, to me, is that the Ribbonization of Office is incomplete. Outlook, for example, still retains the old menu and toolbar UI in its main application window, though sub-windows pickup the Ribbon. That's confusing, though I'll touch on this topic more in the next part of this review. Too, applications like OneNote, InfoPath, and Publisher haven't been Ribbonized at all. Come on guys, let's get the whole suite moved over.

One final fact to consider: A lot of the people who worked on the Ribbon UI in Office are now responsible for the Windows Shell in the next version of Windows. Who knows? We might see something very much like the Ribbon in Windows itself. That would be fantastic.

New document formats

While the new Ribbon-based user interface understandably gets all the press, Office 2007 is a notable release for another reason: It marks the first time, basically ever, that Microsoft has dramatically revamped the default document formats used by various Office applications. As with the new UI, however, not all Office applications utilize new document formats. Instead, only Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have been updated with new formats.

Before you cry foul, however, consider the reason. When you think about it, of all the Office applications, these three are the obvious document-generating applications, and the ones used by the widest numbers of users. Access, by contrast, generates databases, which are decidedly more complex than documents and are generally accessed by multiple users simultaneously. Outlook works with industry-standard email formats as well as calendar, email, contacts, and tasks databases that are compatible with Microsoft's enterprise-oriented server products. You really have to look to applications like Publisher before you can find other Office family products that might benefit from a new format, and let's face it, Publisher usage isn't as wide-spread as that of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint.

With that bit of justification out of the way, let's examine these new formats, which Microsoft calls OpenXML, because they're based on XML, a standards-based, self-documenting markup language that is somewhat like HTML. XML has found widespread success around the world in a variety of places, and its use as the heart of the OpenXML document formats suggests that Microsoft is serious about interoperability and openness. Not convinced? Well, Microsoft went the extra mile after feedback from partners and competitors and released OpenXML to the ECMA standards group, which subsequently certified it as an open standard. What this means is that it will be easier for others to create solutions that interoperate with these new formats. (Previously, developers working on competing office productivity suites had to basically reverse-engineer Microsoft's older Office document formats, for example. This process is error-prone and has resulted in products that are only somewhat interoperable.)

Documents created in the OpenXML formats are smaller and more robust than their predecessors. This is because the new formats are really renamed ZIP-based compressed files that contain a variety of segregated, componentized data, each broken down into individual files inside the container. In a new Word 2007 document, for example, the text of the document is stored separately from the styles that determine how the document will look when displayed electronically or printed. The container format explains the smaller file sizes--Microsoft says such files can be up to 75 percent smaller than those using the older formats--but the robustness comes from this componentized container: If only the style sub-file is destroyed somehow, for example, you can still easily recover the text of the file. And for developers, the new formats are a godsend, since it is so much easier to get at individual components of each document now. Future Office add-ons and companion products will be much more powerful as a result.

Figure: Office 2007 OpenXML-based documents are really componentized ZIP-based containers.

By comparison, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel spreadsheets stored in Office 2003 or earlier formats are monolithic binary files. These are files in which the data, styles, and other information are all mixed together in a proprietary way. Microsoft has long provided programming interfaces for accessing various features of Office document formats, but these methods are limited and cannot be easily improved upon by outside developers. With Office 2007, the shackles are finally off.

To the end user, the new document formats will generally expose themselves in just two ways. First, they include new four-character file extensions. So instead of a .doc Word document, you'll see .docx. Excel's .xls becomes .xlsx. And PowerPoint's .ppt becomes .pptx. You can still access the old formats, of course. In PowerPoint, for example, you can save as the default format, PowerPoint Presentation, which will result in a new .pptx file. Or you can Save As and utilize the PowerPoint 97-2003 option, which will give you a more compatible .ppt file.

That second option will be interesting to a lot of people, especially in the short term, because the second facet of these new formats that's likely to affect a lot of people is incompatibility. Unless you're in a managed environment that has switched entirely to the new Office document formats, you're going to have some issues when you send these new document types to co-workers, friends, or others. That's because Office 2003 and previous Office versions don't natively understand the new formats.

There are two ways around this issue. First, you can simply ignore the new formats. This is the tact I suggest for individuals, especially for the next year or so. Each Office application lets you set the default "Save" format, and you can change it from the default (OpenXML) to the previous version. Problem solved, though you will lose a very few new Office features and you'll notice that these application includes the text [Compatibility Mode] in the title bar when you open a legacy document type.

Users of Office 2000, XP, and 2003 can also download an add-on called the Office Compatibility Pack that will allow them to work with the OpenXML-based document formats. With this add-on, you can open, edit, save, and create files in the OpenXML formats. (Note that you must be running Windows 2000 with SP4 or newer in order to use this add-on.) That's good news, and I give Microsoft a bit of credit for not limiting this add-on to Office 2003 as they might have done.

Final thoughts

As a writer, Web developer, and heavy email user, I've always looked forward to the evolutionary improvements in each new Office release. With Office 2007, the improvements, for the first time ever, are revolutionary and will impact all users. The new Ribbon-based user interface is the key improvement, and will make the power previously hidden inside Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint more readily available and accessible, thus turning a generation of casual Office users into power users. For this reason alone, I strongly recommend that new and casual Office users consider upgrading as soon as possible. The Ribbon is an absolute win for all users, however: Though today's power users will have a bit of relearning to do, the results will be worth it. If you thought you knew any of these applications inside and out, think again: You'll be surprised to discover new and interesting functionality yourself.

The new Office OpenXML document formats provide a more subtle but no less revolutionary benefit. By opening these more robust formats as international standards, Microsoft achieves three important goals, some of which are admittedly self-serving. First, it ensures that its Office document formats remain the de facto standards for such things as word processing, spreadsheets, and slideshows. Second, it counters a growing trend toward open source software and competing open standards such as Open Document, which has been made largely irrelevant by Microsoft moves here. And finally, Microsoft has opened up Office to developers in ways that were never before possible. This will benefit the entire ecosystem and more powerful and impressive Office-based solutions arrive in the months and years ahead.

In the next part of this review, I'll examine the individual client applications in Office 2007 and describe their most interesting new features and functionality.

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