When it comes to upgrades of the software products enterprises rely on, we in the IT community are unanimous in terms of what we think vendors should be offering.
We want significant and viable improvements in our applications—and we dont mean overloading a product with marginal new features. We want to see changes that will make us and our users more productive—features that will help us evolve the way we work so we can not only get more done but also work more creatively and collaboratively.
And if we dont see these kinds of improvements, then you can forget about us upgrading to your new version. Well be perfectly happy sticking with the older versions that have been working quite nicely, thank you.
Oh, yeah—just a couple of other points. When you release your new version, we dont want to see too many changes. Forget about improved usability and increased productivity—we dont want to have to go through the time, hassle and cost of retraining our entire user base. And the new version had better not change too much underlying stuff, either, since we need it to continue to integrate with every single ancient system that we use.
Sound contradictory? It is, but its exactly what were saying to software vendors. I actually feel sorry for them, especially for Microsoft. As Mayor "Diamond Joe" Quimby from "The Simpsons" would say, "You people are nothing but a pack of fickle mush-heads!"
The dueling realities of serving the IT public were seen vividly during the recent bonanza of betas that Microsoft released at WinHEC. Microsoft rolled out new builds of Vista and Office 2007, as well as an early beta of Longhorn Server. eWeek Labs tests of these betas showed a classic Microsoft dont-rock-the-boat-too-much upgrade in Vista but a surprisingly significant change in Office.
On the day that the Microsoft betas were released, May 23, several members of eWeeks Corporate Partner Advisory Board—our reader representatives—happened to be in our Woburn, Mass., offices. We invited them into the lab so they could take a look at the new betas.
While using the Office beta, the CPs were impressed with much of the new interface—especially the ribbon that changes functionality based on what the user is doing. The CPs said the redesigned interface would ease many tasks, such as handling pivot tables in Excel or advanced layouts in Word.
However, while these IT experts were ooh-ing and ah-ing over the revamped interface, they were lamenting the training nightmare that would result from moving to this update.
I have a feeling that this type of attitude will be par for the course for every company that looks at Office, which means Microsoft is once again in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to upgrading its products.
I applaud Microsoft for not taking the easy way out with the forthcoming Office. It would have been easy for the company to continue the marginal upgrade path its been on for the last 10 years. But following that path has meant that the last must-upgrade release of Office was probably Office 97.
If things continue as they are with the Office 2007 beta, it will be the first time in a long while that every Office user and shop should at least take a look at the new version. Compare this to Vista, whose ultimately marginal changes wont do much to motivate migration from Windows XP.
I also think people overestimate the costs of training users on Office 2007. It can actually be harder to deal with differences when the interface on a new version of an app looks basically the same as the old version. Its often easier to jump feet first into an entirely new design. If you have to do training anyway, you might as well get a productivity boost out of it at the end.
We should applaud vendors that try to actually move a product forward rather than offer minor upgrade after minor upgrade. While there are costs associated with big changes, there are also significant benefits.
So, software vendors, dont be afraid to innovate. We might whine a bit, but the changes will be for our own good. Or, as the citizens of Springfield responded to their cartoon mayor, "Give us hell, Quimby!"
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.