Microsoft Office is a set of software programs that nearly everyone uses on a daily basis. Whether it is high school students writing papers or accountants keeping track of finances in Excel, it has become an integral part of our lives. However, Office hasn’t actually changed that much over the past few years. In fact, Office XP (2002, the version I use) and Office 95 have nearly an identical interface. Office 2004 had a floating formatting bar that becomes transparent when you aren’t using it, but overall no large changes have been made. Save for the tune-ups to the Spell Check dictionaries and Grammar check, differences between recent versions are almost nil. Microsoft has recognized that, and hopes to change everything for the better in Office 2007. I have recently come into possession of the Beta version, and prepare to share my thoughts.
First of all, let me say that the Beta version I have is by no means ready to use. I definitely don’t feel comfortable writing a paper in it, as it unexpectedly quits on me for no appranent reason. I left Word open while writing this to talk specifically about certain features, and, while minimized, it quit for no reason. I wasn’t even using it, and hadn’t typed a single thing into it. Also, starting Word causes a bunch of errors, but clicking OK on all of them eventually gets you into the program. This is, after all, a Beta version. Microsoft wouldn’t give it out for free to developers if it was good enough for day-to-day use. The whole purpose of it is to iron out bugs, but more importantly let people see what it in store for them at the end of 2006 (when the final version of 2007 is released… perhaps around the same time as Windows Vista).
Anyway, on to the actual coverage. Pretty much everything new in Office 2007 is graphical related. That is, there are not really any new features (or at least not that I can tell); it is all interface and visual changes. And let me be the first one to tell you… they are incredible. The first simple change you will notice is the overall appearance of the scroll bars and title bar. It is a very minimalistic gray and blue theme that doesn’t get in the way. Perhaps that was put in place to make room for the biggest new feature: the ribbon. It will smack you in the face as soon as you go into the program for two reasons: 1) it is visually very attractive and sleek, and 2) it replaced the menu bars and toolbars completely! That’s right. No more menus.
Before I tell you why the Ribbon (that is Microsoft’s name for it… not mine; I’m not pretending to like it) is great, I figured I would subscribe to the whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” mentality. Click here to see a screen shot of Word 2007 running (let’s face it: when I mention Microsoft Office, Word is the word (pun very much intended) that comes to everyone’s mind… screenshots of the other programs in use are at the end of this article). You should probably consult an eye doctor if you can’t see the Ribbon right away. Hint: It is the entire top of the screen.
Now, putting it off even further, before I delve into the issues of the Ribbon, I will address the other interface changes that you will notice in the above screenshot. Aside from the Ribbon itself there are only three icons: Save, Redo, and Undo. Then there is the File menu that lets you open documents and Save As…, etc. Notable is the fact that you can easily put any icon you want beside Save, Redo, and Undo. That is sort of like a favorites bars in your browser… you can keep links to your favorite tools. For example, I added a Spell check icon after taking the screen shot, because I’m not exactly fond of where Microsoft stuck Spell Check in the Ribbon. Also notable is the fact that when you highlight any piece of text, a small box comes up right beside it that has Bold and other common features. The box quickly disappears if you move the mouse far enough away from it. I think this is a pretty nifty feature – it is there if you want it, but unintrusive otherwise.
But enough delay. Let’s talk about what will really make you consider the upgrade to Office 2007: the strangely named Ribbon. The top of every new Office applications sports a similar interface. There is a tabbed view, where you choose the task you wish to perform. This makes only the tools relevant to your current task visible. Think about it. Do you really need the Margin information visible when you are writing your document? When you’re writing, you care about getting the text actually in, and formatted. Layout is a later task. Tools related to that can be accessed when you design to lay out the document. Or, if you are writing and decide to include a diagram or something, your can go to the Insert task. That will include tools for inserting pictures, charts, etc. This setup really keeps things organized. There is no reason to confuse a user with tons of tools if they are only going to be using a third of them with their current task.
For Word, the Write task is the default task. You can see in the screenshot that you have your common font manipulation tools available, just like the toolbars you are used to. Well, they behave a little differently. When you drop down the Fonts menu, simply hovering over the new font will allow you to preview that with the selected text. So, if I were to select the title of a document and go into the fonts menu, whenever I moved my mouse over a different font, the window would update to show what that font would look like. Previous versions of Word only allowed you to see what the font looked like in spelling the name of the font, but didn’t actually show you how it will look applied to your document. But let’s face it: isn’t that what we really want to know? Every feature of the Ribbon, not just fonts, behaves this way. Mousing over the Heading style, for example, in the Write task will apply the bold and larger font to your selected text in realtime preview. This previewing is extremely helpful for picking what looks the best in a document.
Moving on to another screenshot to illustrate another example, click here. Not only does the Ribbon divide things into Tasks, but it is also context sensitive. What I mean by that is that some Tasks will only appear when you are doing certain things. This way, you won’t get a Table formatting task when you aren’t working with Tables. It is a very intuitive concept, and it really helps keep down the clutter of what could be an insanely unmanageable Ribbon. In the screenshot you can see that I have a sub-Ribbon (I’m starting to coin my own terms now) for Charts, called Chart Tools. This includes Design, Options, and Format. See the Quick Layout and Quick Styles pieces of the Design Task? Those are common features across the Office suite that apply to tables, charts, headers and footers, etc. The coolest thing about these is that the hover-over preview works here too. So, you can literally see what a different chart layout will look like simply by hovering over it. You can imagine how helpful this will be in Excel if you’ve ever made a graph before. Sometimes the little preview image Microsoft gave you wasn’t enough… now you can see how it will actually look with your data. If you think about it, all of these features just make sense and should have been employed years ago.
I already stated that there aren’t that many new features. You can notice the prettier graphs, and the other Quick Styles are just as nice. But really, that isn’t a new feature, just adding on to what has already been a part of the program. In Powerpoint there is a new feature that may definitely jive up some presentations. You can select any bulleted list and convert it into a sort of flow diagram (see after converted to diagram). It is definitely nifty, but nothing to go crazy over. Again, features aren’t the focus here… it is Ribbon and the redesigned way of doing things. And that is where the suite really shines.
Covering every little cool thing about the Ribbon would be useless, and mainly it is really hard to explain a lot of the benefits in words. But when you use it, everything just works. There is no more trying to remember if the Margins are set under File, Page Setup or Format, Document (people who use both Mac and Windows can relate). Just go to the Layout task, and it will be right there for you. This entire redesign focuses on giving the average user the ability to access every part of the program. What usually took advanced tweaking and menu surfing is now a few clicks away, and the realtime previewing takes the guesswork out of everything. Furthermore, having a consistent Ribbon-like interface across the entire Office suite makes things even easier. The absolute beginner could learn Word easily, and then feel instantly comfortable in Powerpoint when they see a trusty Ribbon with similarly named Tasks. It just seems like Microsoft’s design team has really hit a home run with this, and I can honestly say I can’t wait until the Final (unbuggy) version comes out.
Now the part everyone has been waiting for (or not). The screenshots: