Office 2007 Is Off-Putting

Opinion: The suite's new features may seem unnecessarily complex, but history suggests users will get over it.

When our family room PC swung at its third and final strike a year ago, with failure to boot signaling the "Youre out!" instance of needing to reinstall Windows 98, I decided to get my teenage sons something more modern than the 400MHz Compaq Presario that had been their workhorse for seven years. An iMac seemed the obvious choice: Mac OS X is a solid foundation for multiuser sharing of a system, while Apples iLife suite is clearly ideal for school projects.

What I found myself installing soon thereafter, though, was a new Dell PC running Windows Media Center—because my sons werent nearly as interested in Apples technical upside as they were leery of relearning skills that theyd mastered in what they call Word—by which they mean Word for Windows. Most users dont even know theres a need to specify.

Yes, theyve seen the OS X version of Office, and a beautiful piece of work it is, too. But its different, and my real-world, real-user sons have a clear understanding that "different" entails a big deduction from "compatible" or even from "better." Speaking of which, how about that Office 2007?

I dont fear complexity. Heck, as long as I have to compete with a world full of hungry techies (whether overseas or merely underage), unreasonably complex technology is my best friend. Even so, Ill tell you exactly how I feel when I look at the Office 2007 ribbon of dynamically changing icons and artfully laid-out columns of hierarchical menu entry points. I feel like Tommy Webber, fictional cast member of the fictional TV series "Galaxy Quest" in the 1999 movie of that name, when the aliens sat him down at the helm of a starship that theyd built from careful study of his TV footage—and expected him to pilot the thing out of space dock. Hoo, boy.

Its crucial to get over that first impression of Office 07. After all, theres already been a combinatorial explosion of possible arrangements of menus and tool bars in prior versions of Office, but somehow civilization hasnt collapsed under the strain. Research shows that people are actually masters of selective perception and quickly learn—for good or ill—to ignore what doesnt relate to what theyre trying to do.

Some users, or their support departments, will take the time to pare down the presentation of Offices overwhelming capability to the subset that matters to them. That subset will vary, though, from one setting to another, which is why I dont agree with the conventional wisdom that "Office has too many features." Thats like saying that the periodic table has too many elements or that my life gets more complicated when scientists find a new element.

The tenth of a milligram of vanadium in your body could fit in a quarter-millimeter cube, but that doesnt mean your body doesnt need it; likewise, there are features in Word and Excel that I use only once a year—for example, during tax season—but, nonetheless, I depend on them to be there.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about what Office 2007 has to offer.

Unlike the vast majority of PC users, its actually part of my job to explore alternative ways of doing a job—instead of just using the tools that Im given and speaking up only if they prove inadequate. I therefore take some pains, for example, to compose online columns with a simple HTML editor and to use a variety of programmers editors and other tools that keep my mind open.

Even so, I use 800-pound-gorilla Word for some pretty simple tasks. I take interview notes more quickly with Word, since it corrects my simple typos on the fly. Is that something I need? No, but it makes me more productive. Is it worth the computational cost? If not today, Moores Law says it will cost less tomorrow.

Microsoft will take a lot of flak for the changes its introducing in Office 2007—some of it from me. Over the past two decades, though, the mainstream application market seems to have voted in favor of getting over the hump of habit and using cheap hardware to give more help to expensive people. Id be betting against the smart money if I said that Office 2007 wasnt the next step in that direction.

Peter Coffee can be reached at

WWWeb Resources

Focused to a fault?
Users are masters of ignoring what doesnt matter:

Window of opportunity?
Office competitors may find warmth in the winter of users discontent:

Many faces of friendliness
A task mix alters perception of how many features are "too many":

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