The first time I was shown the new ribbon and tab-based Office 12 user interface, I pronounced it “bizarre.” It reminded me of the old Amiga or GeoWorks UIs of two decades ago, not the Microsoft Windows that replaced them.
But while I havent spent time actually using the new Office 12 UI, it has already begun to grow on me.
Why havent I played with the beta? Because its being released to press and beta testers within a few hours of each other, I am doing the final edit of this column literally as the software is downloading to my machine.
I will come back with another column once Ive had a chance to actually play with the software. This column is based on the demonstrations Ive seen and what Ive been told about the Beta 1 release.
Ive also prepared a slide show of the major elements of the new Office 12 user interface, which not only makes most-used features easier to find, but also raises less-used features up a rank.
For example, Ive never used the References features in Word and rarely use Mailings, but now that each has its own tab and ribbon, these features will be much more in front of me and probably will get more use. Unless, of course, I can just make those tabs go away.
While the ribbon-based user interface is used in most of the Office 12 applications, it is PowerPoint and Access that seem to have been improved the most.
Since its first release, Ive been complaining that Access is much too difficult for the typical user to master. It seems like Microsoft may, finally, have taken this to heart and improved the interface enough that Access 12 wont seem so terrible to new users.
PowerPoint gets features designed, finally, to help people produce better-looking presentations and then share them more effectively across an organization.
I have not played with the beta code, but the impression I got from the demonstrations is that the ugly PowerPoint templates have been replaced with better ones. But, well see if this materializes.
What Office 12 apps dont use the new ribbon UI? Outlook and OneNote.
Graphics Still Dont Match
What I have seen of the IGX graphics functionality in Office 12 is impressive, but PowerPoint still isnt as graphically rich as Apples Keynote on Mac OS X.
Still, Office 12 offers a great improvement over previous Windows graphics. No, Office 12 is not tied to the Windows Vista OS, but some of the improved graphics likely will require the new operating system.
Where Outlook was the most-improved application in Office 2003, it may be the least-changed app in Office 12. The main improvements seem to be in the handling of to-do items and calendar sharing.
Microsoft has not implemented any Plaxo-like contact information management features in Office 12, but I wouldnt be surprised to see these in a future Office Live service offering.
The collaboration features in Office 12 generally require a SharePoint server to implement. One of the problems with Microsofts revenue model is that while SharePoint wants to be something users install themselves on spare computers in their workgroup, or even on personal machines, Microsoft needs to sell SharePoint as a standalone server that IT administers.
Yes, SharePoint is available as a hosted service, but this isnt something most mere users can avail themselves of.
Speaking of SharePoint, the links between it and Outlook havent been terribly useful, typically working in only one direction.
Outlook 12 now offers “first-class integration” with SharePoint, making the server a good place to store shared calendars, contact lists, documents, tasks and other information. But, isnt this what Exchange server is also supposed to do?
Microsoft is also making much of the new XML-based file formats in Office 12. In theory, an open XML schema should be capable of ensuring Office 12 documents will be readable by other applications.
Heck, Microsoft says its XML is open, royalty-free, and “universally accessible.” How this works out in the real, political, competitive world, remains to be seen.
Microsoft has noticed that the Adobe Acrobat format exists and now allows users to write PDF files. Now, if Microsoft apps could also read them into applications for editing.
InfoPath 12, the Microsoft forms package, remains too enterprise-oriented and doesnt do enough to help individual users create and deploy forms. For this, they apparently need Adobe Acrobat 7.
The new editing and design features in Word may encourage more people to create and use templates, which would be an important step toward better-looking documents. I like the ability to visualize formats and fonts without actually committing to them.
FrontPage is no longer a part of Office, being replaced by something called Expressions, which sounds to me more like a greeting card builder than an HTML editor.
I havent been briefed on Expressions, but since I am a FrontPage user I am concerned. Im trying to get an Expressions briefing and will report back on what I learn.
I am not a big fan of OneNote, the information organizer built for the Tablet PC. While most of the applications in Office have been around for all 12 revisions, Office 12 is really only OneNote 2.
I am still not sure why OneNote needs to be a separate application from Word. And when I need to “gather everything in one place,” which is one of OneNotes stated purposes, I use a Mac application called Circus Ponies Notebook. Its a very good piece of software, which I cant really say for OneNote.
Yes, there is a Microsoft Publisher 12, though you might not think so from how quiet Microsoft has been about it. It has improved template support and incorporates the new Office 12 user interface. I think Publisher is a great application and the new version is more flexible and easier to use.
For users who have been hemmed in by limitations on the size of Excel spreadsheets—which I have never run into—Excel 12 now supports documents as large as 1 million rows by 16,000 columns.
The new Excel charting engine is used across the suite, enhancing features such as soft shadows, 3D and transparency. The look-and-feel of charting will be consistent between Excel 12, Word 12 and PowerPoint 12.
If you think the media has a lot of clout at Microsoft, consider this: Word 12 finally, after years and years of complaints from many writers (including myself), places the word count where it can easily be seen while writing. MacWord has done this for many years, which may explain why so many writers use Macintosh.
Those are my initial thoughts on Office 12, all subject to change once I have actually play with the software and learn more about it.
As technology, Office 12 seems to be off to a good start. However, as a business proposition, as in “Should you upgrade?” its much too early to say.
Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.