Office 12 Beta Brings UI Changes

By David Coursey  |  Posted 2005-11-22

Office 12 Beta Brings UI Changes

Microsoft says Office "12"—the 12 is always in quotes since the company will probably end up calling the final release Office Vista or something—is the most important Office release in a decade.

It may well be, though I think its the various Office servers that make the statement true more than the client. And, just for convenience, Ill skip the quote marks.

I havent had a chance to play with the servers, but have spent several days now using the client software, especially Word and Outlook. Here are my early findings:

First, as befits a first beta release, there have been crashes, and performance could be a whole lot better. Fortunately, though Word has crashed dozens of times, I only lost data in one of them. The other times, Word has recovered quite nicely and Ive continued my work.

Outlook 12 has not crashed once in three days of heavy use and I am keeping my fingers crossed.

In this column, Ill share my experiences with Outlook and Word. PowerPoint, Excel, Publisher and FrontPage will be discussed in a future column. I will probably stay away from Access, InfoPath and OneNote, three programs with which I have only limited experience.

Click here to read more about Microsofts first beta release of Office 12.

Word 12: The More Visual Word Processor

The big differences between Word 2003 and its successor are obvious. The new tabs-and-ribbons user interface takes a bit of getting used to, especially for functions—like the spell-checker—that dont appear in the Write ribbon, though they certainly should.

It also took me a minute, during which I sat somewhat dumbstruck, to realize that adding a table to a document is an Insert function and thus is found on that ribbon.

Having the spell-checker on the Review ribbon makes sense, as the speller does review my spelling. But checking spelling is something I will do multiple times during a writing project, so easy access is important.

Even on the Review tab, spelling and grammar are not a top-level ribbon item, requiring the user to open a pull-down. Those Microsoft people must be really great spellers, at least judging by how thoroughly theyve hidden the spell-checker.

Having the spell-checker accessed through the Review tab is a throwback to Word for MS-DOS, when the speller was hidden in something called the "Gallery." Most people didnt notice, however, because they were using WordPerfect at the time.

Next Page: Live previewing in Word and a look at Outlook 12.

Live Previewing in Word

and a Look at Outlook 12">

Live previewing of format changes takes a little getting used to, as your document changes as your cursor rolls over the various fonts and formatting options.

If you dont make a selection, the feature disappears when you move the cursor away. This isnt a must-have feature, but it does make it easier to see what a proposed change will do.

Document themes are a nice feature that makes it easy to select—or change—all the fonts and colors in your document from one set to another. Word 12 is thus able to take advantage of the color printers available in most offices.

The feeling I have gotten while writing in Word 12 is that I am being given a workflow to follow, rather than continuing the ad hoc manner in which I used previous versions. This feeling may go away as moving from one tab to another becomes second nature, but right now, writing, laying out pages and reviewing my work feel like separate processes.

Word 12 allows documents to be saved in the Adobe Acrobat PDF file format, a feature that is long overdue. The program does not, however, read PDF files for editing.

Even at this early stage, Word 12 is a very nice word processor. Microsoft has succeeded in making the most used features more easily available, though some tweaking would certainly make sense. There are some changes, like moving the save, undo and redo buttons off the taskbar and increasing their size, that I hope Microsoft will make, but for which I dont immediately see a better alternative.

Finally, it is easier to create a good-looking document in Office 12 than in any previous version of Word.

Outlook: The Wide-Screen Release

The big change in Outlook 12 is the addition of a Task Pane, providing access to your to-dos and a limited view of your calendar. The reason I call this the "wide-screen" version of Outlook is visible in the fourth illustration in this slideshow, a screenshot that was taken on my Dell notebook.

Somehow, Outlook manages to make all the information mostly readable, but things sure are compressed. On my 19-inch desktop monitor, however, or a widescreen display, Outlook 12 would look just fine.

Read about alternatives to Microsoft Office here.

One complaint here is that since I dont use to-dos in Outlook, Id really rather see more calendar items than are currently displayed (no, the calendar window pane doesnt seem to slide down). What I like about the small calendar is that since meetings are always visible in Outlook I am less likely to forget them.

Instant Search is a new feature that speeds the finding of Outlook information without forcing the user to leave the application. Ive been using desktop search for this, as the search in Office 2003 is quite slow.

Instant Search isnt quite instantaneous, but it is fast enough to be useful, even in this beta.

While the Outlook UI hasnt changed tremendously, the editing UI does take advantage of some of the tabs-and-ribbons features from Word. Outlook 12 is also better integrated with SharePoint servers, a compatibility that was depressingly partial in Office 2003. If there are other major changes to Outlook, I havent found them so far.

Next Page: How not to release a beta.

How Not to Release

a Beta">

Introduction Blues

In Word 12, Microsoft has given me a very nice tool that I am using to write a column that will now complain a bit about how Word 12, and the rest of Office 12, were released last week.

In 20 years of writing about Microsoft, I have never seen a product introduction or beta program handled as poorly as the Office 12 beta release.

My impression is that the Office 12 team didnt give themselves enough time to get the beta released properly, though what pressure they were under to release at any particular moment I dont know.

I also get the strong impression that people at Microsoft werent talking to one another, or that decisions as to what products to include in the beta were made very late in the game.

For example, two weeks ago I was told that FrontPage 12 didnt exist, yet there it is available for beta testers to download. Im a FrontPage user, so I care about what happens to the program more than most people would. I was told FP was being replaced by something based on a technology Microsoft is calling "Expressions."

It turns out that downloading "FrontPage 12" loads something called "SharePoint Designer," which looks like a cross between FP as we know it and Visual Studio. Thats probably what a next-generation Web-dev package needs to be, but I hope FP doesnt become too complex for non-developers to use.

I was also led to believe that Beta 1 was about the client, and the new Office servers wouldnt appear until Beta 2, some time early next year. But guess what else is available for downloading? You guessed it, servers. The servers may or may not still be covered by my nondisclosure agreement, and I havent been able to play with them regardless, so Ill leave that topic, at least for now.

It didnt help that the beta release, originally scheduled for Monday, was delayed until Wednesday night. Once the decision to delay was made, Microsoft might have been better off holding for an entire week rather than launching before things were right.

It appears that setting up the online beta distribution, something Microsoft does routinely, was more of a challenge that it should have been.

In this case, however, beta testers got access before the media embargo was scheduled to lift. They started talking about it, apparently on Weblogs and in e-mail, which ended the embargo rather suddenly. The next time someone tells me Microsoft is a well-oiled machine, Ill tell them this story.

Does a flawed introduction take anything away from Office 12? No, it doesnt. I think the decision to upgrade will, for many companies, be based more upon the servers than the client software. The clients Ive used are quite nice, but the important functional improvements come from the new Office servers that Ive yet to really see in action.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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