Microsoft Corp. officials last week took the lid off the new results-oriented user interface in Office 12, the next version of its Office System family of products.
The new UI replaces the traditional menus and tool bars with a set of graphical command tabs that correspond to the tasks that people want to accomplish. But these improvements do not come without a cost in the form of a user learning curve.
In the first demonstration of the UI here at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference last week, Chris Capossela, vice president of Microsofts Information Worker division, introduced the main part of the UI, which is known as the "ribbon."
The ribbon is where users go to find the commands that help create documents, presentations or spreadsheets. The ribbon replaces the set of task panes, menus and tool bars in previous versions of Office.
Another feature Capossela highlighted is "galleries," which give users a visual representation of the kinds of formatting choices they can make in a document without setting a number of individual elements to achieve it. "Users get to pick before they click and so get the view that they want," he said.
Tasks such as inserting page numbers, headers, footers and boxes into Word documents will now be far simpler. Users will be able to select them from an available gallery. There will also be tabs for mailings and for reviewing the document and the layout, "which turns every Word user into a power user," Capossela said.
Also new is the Quick Launch Toolbar, which allows users to customize the interface by adding as many commands as they want to a tool bar, while "Floatie" is a formatting tool that presents the most common text formatting features on a tool panel that floats over the selected text.
Microsoft also added a new to-do bar to Outlook. In addition, attachments in Outlook e-mail can be viewed and played in a preview pane. "Search is also integrated throughout Office, using the same indexing technology as in Windows Vista," Capossela said.
Some attendees at the conference said they were impressed with what they saw of the new UI but that they were looking forward to getting the first beta. One attendee said he was eager to see just how much of the desktop real estate the ribbon took up, particularly on laptops with small screens.
The first beta is still on track for release this fall, with the final product expected to be available in the second half of next year, Steven Sinofsky, Microsofts senior vice president for Office, told eWEEK in an interview.
Sinofsky also acknowledged that there will be a learning curve associated with Office 12 that will probably be steeper for most users than the one for Office XP.
"Yes, there will certainly be a learning curve," he said. "We have added hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of features that you would not have been able to use before, even if they were in the [old] UI."