May 24, 2006 (12:05 PM EDT)
Review: 2007 Microsoft Office Beta 2 Is Up And Running
Read the Original Article at InformationWeek
It's been a while since Microsoft's Office suite, the collection of software applications that a large percentage of today's workers use on a daily basis, has had a major overhaul. Redmond brought out Beta 1 of the new collection last November; now Beta 2 is out. The new version (officially called 2007 Microsoft Office, with the year before the name) has added several features to the previous iteration and has firmed up many of the features that didn't work properly in Beta 1. In addition, Microsoft has put together the various packages that will make up its Office suite collection -- seven in all.
Most of the improvements in the existing applications were detailed in our November review of Beta 1, "First Look: Microsoft Office 12 Beta 1."
A new addition since then is Office Groove, the result of Microsoft's 2005 acquisition of Groove Networks. Groove revolves around the concept of "collaborative work spaces," shared places where teams can work on documents, have threaded discussions, share schedules, and track who is working on what when. It is a simple and easily understood application that works very much like a traditional instant messaging product -- you have a list of contacts whom you can invite to a workspace using a Launchbar that lists your active, online, and offline contacts. There, they can access shared files, draw together on sketchbook pages, have a text or audio chat, and even have an online meeting.
Several upgraded products aren't included in any of the suite packages but are also being introduced as Office applications. For example, Microsoft Office Project, the project management application, won't be included with Office but is shipping separately in two versions: Standard and the enterprise-level Professional (which can connect with Microsoft Office Project Server 2007). Office Visio is the latest version of the excellent Visio flow-charting and diagramming application; it will also come in a Standard and more complex Professional version.
Finally, SharePoint Designer, a Web authoring application that takes the place of FrontPage, is aimed at the moderately to highly experienced site designer. According to Microsoft's literature, the shipping product will include more than 40 prebuilt SharePoint applications from the Microsoft Developer Network site.
The various applications will appear in eight different Office versions, ranging from an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink enterprise suite to a bare-bones OEM iteration for new PCs:
Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007: A last-minute addition to the list, Ultimate gives retail customers almost the same package offered in the Enterprise suite. It does not include OneNote Mobile 2007 or Communicator, but does include Business Contact Manager, which adds complete small-business contact management capabilities to Outlook. The cost is $679.
Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007: Also available only through volume licensing, this slightly smaller package lacks Groove, OneNote, and Business Contact Manager.
Microsoft Office Professional 2007: This is the highest level of Office that will be available on store shelves. It will come without Communicator, Groove, InfoPath or OneNote, and will sell for $499 (upgrade price $329). It will include Business Contact Manager.
Microsoft Office Small Business 2007:
Microsoft Office Standard 2007:
Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007:
Microsoft Office Basic 2007 (OEM only):
Inspecting The Interface
The most obvious change in Office's applications, and the one that most people will be talking about, is the new interface that overlays many of Office's applications. If you've been following the descriptions in past coverage, for example, you'll know that Microsoft has replaced its previous icon and menu system with a new -- and much discussed -- interface.
Here's the story in a nutshell: Instead of the well-known drop-down file system that has been the basis for the Office interface ever since its beginning, each Office app now sports a "Ribbon" that runs across the top of the window and gives access to all the application's features. Features are collected into tabbed groupings; click on one of the tabs, which run across the top of the Ribbon, and you can see all the features that belong to that group.
For example, there are seven tabbed groups in Microsoft Word, including Home (which contains the more commonly used features, such as cut-and-paste and paragraph styling); Insert (for placing items such as headers/footers, tables, and illustrations within text); Page Layout (for setting margins, paragraph formatting, and design themes); References (footnotes, citations, captions); Mailings (mail merge, labels); Review (comments, change tracking, spelling and grammar); and View (document views, show/hide page elements, zoom). Add an element such as a table, and more context-sensitive feature tabs appear.
There has been a lot of skepticism about the usefulness – and, indeed, the necessity – of the Ribbon, and I have to admit that I was among the doubters. Why change something that works for many people? Because, according to Microsoft, the current interface has become bloated with too many menus.
Jenson Harris, the lead program manager for the Microsoft Office user experience team, explained that the current system of toolbars has meant an exponential increase from two toolbars in Word 1.0 to 31 in Word 2003. "Conventional punditry was that people only use 5 percent of Office and that everything we need was in older versions," he said in a recent press event. "However, we found that real people said that people simply can't figure out how to use what features there are in there." He described the new interface as providing "one home for functionality."
Now I'm not so sure. After working with several of the applications -- those I was very familiar with (such as Word) and those I seldom, if ever, use (such as Access) -- I found that I could more easily deal with features that I had found awkward in the past. For example, I was able to add an arrow to a Word document, change its design, and experiment with the way text wrapped around it with a lot more confidence than I had before.
There are a number of other interface changes that Microsoft hopes will prove attractive to both new and experienced users. One is what the company calls the Galleries, which are drop-down menus that illustrate the various style options available. When you hover your cursor over one of the images, you can see what effect it will have on your document, without having to actually implement the change first.
For example, if you highlight some text and pull down the styles menu, you can immediately see how each style would look if applied to the highlighted area. Want to insert a table? Click on the Insert tab, choose the Table group, and you get a drop-down window with an image of a table. Pull the cursor across the image, and the cells highlight; simultaneously, a table appears in your document. Got the right number of cells? Click, and the table is part of your document.
Another addition is the Mini Toolbar -- a floating, ghostly toolbar that offers a number of common formatting commands. The toolbar pops up when you highlight text; move your cursor toward the toolbar and it solidifies, move away from it and it goes away. (This would have solved a lot of problems in most of the horror films I've seen.)
More Interface Fun
So where exactly in Office does the new interface appear? A document on the Microsoft Web site states: "The new Microsoft Office user interface is designed to make the full range of advanced features provided by the Microsoft Office authoring applications more accessible to more people. For this reason, the new UI will be used in the following 2007 Microsoft Office applications: Microsoft Office Word 2007, Microsoft Office Excel 2007, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007, Microsoft Office Access 2007, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 (not the shell, only the authoring portion: mail composition, calendar, tasks and contacts)."
Yes, that's right. Parts of Outlook use the old interface, while other parts use the new interface, which is odd.
What Microsoft doesn't explain is why neither the Publisher desktop publishing program nor the OneNote note-taking application (both of which seem to fit the "authoring application" requirement) has the new interface.
Here are a few final impressions about the new interface:
Help Is Out Of The Way
There is one aspect of the new interface that experienced users may not be able to accept: the inability to remove or change the position of the icons on the Ribbon. Microsoft has provided a Quick Access Toolbar that lives either above or directly below the Ribbon, to which users can add their favorite features. However, users who like to tweak their own interfaces might get testy over the lack of flexibility in this area.
And the placement of the various features is not always instinctive. For example, I found the new interface fairly useless when I tried to figure out how to get rid of smart quotes in Word. And when I went looking for the Options menu and went to the large Office Button on the upper-left corner (which takes the place of the File menu header), I couldn't find the expected Options choice. It turned out that, instead of being among the list of commands (such as Open, Save, Send, etc.), it was nearly hidden within the lower margin of the drop-down window.
Open XML: Another Bone Of Contention
The new interface isn't the only controversial area that Microsoft will be contending with. Microsoft has been championing its Open XML file format against the open-source OpenDocument Format (ODF).
However, ODF was recently ratified by the International Standards Organization (ISO), while Open XML has yet to be accepted. Microsoft has petitioned the competing ECMA standards body for approval of Open XML.
Now that the new beta is out and available for download, Microsoft should soon be getting an idea of whether its gamble will pay off. The new interface will alarm quite a few long-time users; but if my own experience is any yardstick, once the initial shock is over, most people will be pleasantly surprised.