Changes to Office UI Far from Done

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-01-30

Changes to Office UI Far from Done

While Windows Vista and Office 2007 officially hit the streets today after years of development, Microsoft is far from done with innovating and changing the new user interface in the Office System family of products.

Going forward, the new ribbon-based user interface is likely to be applied to other applications that did not get it in Office 2007, Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Business Division Product Management Group, told eWEEK in an interview ahead of the general availability of the products on Jan. 30.

"People have generally been very positive about the ribbon, so I would say that in the 2007 release we focused on the rich, authoring experience and trying to make that far simpler in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. That focus was really helpful," he said.

Microsofts "Enchanted Office" comic touts the ribbon UI. Read about it here.

"So we will look at bringing the ribbon to those other Office applications, such as OneNote, Project and Visio, going forward and based on user feedback," said Capossela, who manages the Microsoft Office System of products.

Some of the lessons that Microsoft has learned, and continues to learn, from the authoring experience can also be applied to other aspects of Office and how it is used by customers, he said.

"So I dont think our user interface innovation is done. It is not just about spreading it to other applications. If anything, I think the work we have done in Office 2007 and the reception we have gotten so far have made us all the more excited about the users ability to advance, and has opened up the possibility of a whole lot more innovation rather than limiting it," he said.

Capossela also confirmed to eWEEK that there is no current plan to productize the much-speculated Office 2007 search add-in, code-named Scout, which he said is a "cool internal project from Microsoft Research to show off some search technology."

But Scout is just an internal prototype and not a real product. The Office team feels good about the ability of users to find what they are looking for inside Office 2007, with the interactive guides on Office Online getting a lot of usage, he said.

These guides use short videos to show customers where commands or tool bar buttons found in Office 2003 now live in the new Office 2007 user interface, and how to make the transition from the old to the new, he said.

eWEEK Labs says Office 2007 does break some new ground. Click here to read how.

"The guides are available today, at no cost, and are the No. 1 tool people should use to make the transition from Office 2003 to Office 2007," he said.

Asked if this means that there are no plans to productize Scout for Office users at this time, Capossela said, "Yes, that is correct."

Capossela also confirmed that Microsoft has worked through the issues with its volume-license customers, on a case-by-case basis, around the impact of the delay in the release of Vista and Office 2007.

Next Page: Volume-licensing issues.

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"We have had a great track record of shipping a new release of Office every two to three years," he said. "This release took us about two months longer than three years, and so there were a set of customers we worked with on an individual basis to talk through how they felt about the relationship, what they saw coming from Microsoft and the value they were seeing from those annuity" agreements. We feel very good about how that has turned out. It was a very short window of two months, and I dont think it has caused any major customer issues for us."

Microsoft remains committed to shipping a major release of Office every two to three years, he said. Many Microsoft business customers bought their software under such agreement, which gives them the rights to any version of Office that ships during the three-year window of that contract.

"We are very committed to doing as best a job as we can, but obviously we want to make sure that the quality of the product is right. We dont want to ship it just to make some date," Capossela said.

Asked if there will be a more formal linkage of the development and release cycles of Office and Vista going forward, given that they are being released simultaneously this time around, Capossela said it was serendipitous, having the products come to market together.

"I cant say it was the plan we had at the beginning. I dont think it is a critical thing for us to do every time," he said. "We certainly need to be aware of what the product road maps are across the company so that we understand what kinds of technical dependencies we should take, but it isnt something where we sit down and say that every new version of Office should happen at the same time as Windows.

"We, the Office team, really think of ourselves as a software vendor that builds on top of the Windows platform, and we look to them to tell us what the key platform capabilities are that we should take advantage of to build a great application. We then look at that list to see what is right for the Office user base, and take it from there," he said.

With regard to claims by a group of its competitors that Vista will perpetuate practices found illegal in the European Union nearly three years ago, including the charge that the Open XML platform file format is designed to run seamlessly only on the Microsoft Office platform, Capossela said that no other company puts anywhere near the resources that Microsoft does behind open standards, which is something the company is proud of.

Read more here about how Microsoft has hit back at its Open XML critics.

"With regard to the Open XML standard, there are a couple of things I would say. This is now an Ecma standard, and we are working hard to make it an ISO standard as well. We have also worked very closely with a number of other companies on this standard, and so it is an industry effort," he said.

It is also a fully documented, completely open file format, so "anyone who writes a Java-based application that runs only on Linux can create Open XML files that Word or Excel running on Windows—and soon the Apple Macintosh—will be able to open. So to say this is only an Office thing just is not accurate," he said.

Even the most anti-Microsoft software developer, who only writes, say, Perl script applications running on Linux servers that never touch any Microsoft product, could use those languages on those platforms, to write out content into this XML format.

Click here to read about how Microsoft won Ecma approval for the Office Open XML format.

That content could then be read and written back by Word on a Windows machine, or by Word on a Mac, or read and written to by some other application written in another language that has nothing to do with Microsofts platform, he said.

If they want to create an XML file that Word can open, "its not that hard, and it is also something we think people will do en masse over the next couple of years," Capossela said.

It is Microsofts job to get third-party developer support behind the format, and "were hard at work on that. But it is important for the facts to be clear: You do not have to be running any Windows machines or using any Microsoft development tools to build cool applications that use the format," he said.

This is the same scenario as building "cool applications that use HTML: It doesnt have to be Internet Explorer that reads that HTML, it can be Firefox running on a Linux machine," Capossela said.

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