Review and Visual Tour: Microsoft's 2007 Office Beta 2

Word menus and toolbars are now 'ribbons'

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The inflexibility of the ribbon interface could also be a plus for the help desk, because users can't mess with the interface. Resolving user problems should be easier, because the support technician can rely on a consistent, not custom, interface among users. (The streamlined menu -- where options that weren't used could be suppressed on an application's menu -- is also gone, removing yet another help desk headache.)

On the other hand, the new interface could put a temporary strain on the help desk or tech support, as users struggle to find their favorite or most-used commands. In our view, the ribbon's arrangements of buttons and icons is hit or miss. Microsoft says its testing shows that users pick up the new interface quickly. We're not so sure. While we found where most of our commands had moved and grew more comfortable with the interface after about four hours, the average enterprise user may not be so patient or forgiving.

There's no question that Office 2007 is going to take some adjustment and will affect productivity, at least initially. Will the new interface eventually kick in and lead to improved productivity? We're not sure, and any improvements may be minor and not compensate for the headache any upgrade brings. Enterprises must explore these areas when making upgrade decisions.

Other Considerations

Though not new in Office 2007, the suite now uses a Zip-compatible XML-based file structure. In Office 2003, this format was available as an option; in Office 2007, it's the default. While you can still open and edit .DOC files in Word, files are automatically saved in DOCX format.

These new file formats are not backward-compatible with earlier versions, though Microsoft has said that a conversion add-in will be available for Office XP and 2003 users.

There's no doubt that using XML helps other applications expose data contained in Office documents. The format also chops a document into several pieces, improving the likelihood of successful data recovery (with Office 2007, an inability to recover one portion of a file doesn't impair recovery of the rest, as is now the case).

What if you adopt Office 2007 but your clients, customers or collaborators don't? You will have to be diligent in saving files to the "standard" (non-XML) formats, such as DOC, XLS and PPT. For how long? Word 2000 and Word XP use is still heavy, which leads us to believe such diligence will be needed for several years.

Bundles

Application bundling in Office suites has changed. OneNote, a product that hasn't gained much traction (it's of limited use to most users) is now part of the Enterprise, Home and Student versions. The Student version drops Outlook because, Microsoft says, students typically use online e-mail and thus don't need an e-mail client -- which ignores Outlook's good task and calendar features. A full list of which applications are in each version can be found at www.microsoft.com/office/preview/suites.mspx.

Enterprise versions are expected to be available later this year (most likely in November), with the consumer versions due at the beginning of 2007.

Your Bottom Line

For the individual user struggling to use Word, an intermediate user who wants to get more done with Excel or an office worker who could benefit from seeing multiple calendars at once, Office 12's new interface and updated graphics are welcome, but may not be sufficiently compelling to justify an upgrade. Pricing is available at www.microsoft.com/office/preview/pricing.mspx.

You can download the beta at www.microsoft.com/office/preview/beta/download/en/default.mspx

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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