Microsoft’s Sock in The Vacuum

Shortly after my daughter was born, my wife and I decided to turn in our old canister vacuum for a spiffy new upright model. But the manufacturer’s inattention to one small detail ruined the whole experience. Just seconds after I unpacked and turned the thing on, it sucked up a baby sock hiding under my daughter’s dresser.

The overlooked detail was this: Unlike our canister vacuum, the upright model’s motor was in front of the debris bag rather than behind it. The sock hit the impeller on the motor and promptly jammed. Before I could step on the power button, the motor went up in smoke. A week later, we were using our familiar old canister vac again.

For the soon-to-be-launched Microsoft Office 2007, the sock in the vacuum is the new user interface. Users who are comfortable with the old Office interface may get all jammed up before they even open a file. Where’s the File menu? It’s gone, replaced by the Office Button, a colorful, disk-shaped graphical object. Somehow, you must know to click on that button to find menus for basic functions such as opening or saving a file.

The familiar File, Edit, View, Insert menu system has been replaced by a context-sensitive Ribbon bar. Many functions have been moved around and regrouped in ways that may seem illogical or confusing to experienced users.

After the initial shock wears off, Office 2007 users will find much to like about the suite. The challenge will be getting people over that initial hump — and keeping them from blowing a fuse during the transition.

Jensen Harris, principal lead program manager for Office 2007, says IT should expect a “temporary loss of productivity” as users come up to speed. He expects “recovery” in one to three weeks. Organizations that plan to move forward with Office 2007 will need to sell users on the benefits and roll this version out with plenty of training and support resources to avoid end-user frustration.

Computerworld recently surveyed 171 Office 2007 beta testers and found that most of them like the product and 72% said they have upgrade plans. But the other 28% expressed strong negative feelings about the user interface.

The strongest reactions came from advanced users who are heavily invested in the existing user interface. Diane Pencil, lead enterprise architect at Owens Corning, says there’s something soothing about clicking down through the menus to find those familiar functions. “That’s what these new processes mess with,” she says.

By the way, if Eureka had installed a simple, 10-cent circuit breaker button on my upright vacuum, I might still be using it today. Likewise, it would be nice if Office 2007 had a little red button that allowed you to fall back to “classic” menus.

Then again, because the new user interface is a key benefit, enabling classic menus would defeat the purpose of upgrading; it would also make new features unavailable.

If training isn’t enough of a challenge, there’s another sock in the vacuum: the Open XML file format that debuts in Office 2007. Although Open XML has clear benefits, IT administrators who went through the Office 97 transition may recoil in horror at another format that’s not backward- compatible, despite the fact that Micro­soft has introduced tools it says will make the transition go more smoothly.

Microsoft wants everyone to immediately download a new compatibility pack that will enable Office 2003, XP and 2000 users to read .docx and other Open XML file formats. But getting everyone to swallow that 26.6MB compatibility pack won’t be easy. Not only will your company need to make the transition, but your business partners will as well.

Even if everyone does download the compatibility packs, things can still get lost in the translation. In some cases, new features will be eliminated or dumbed down.

For example, document objects such as the new Smart Art get calcified into bit maps when viewed in Office 2003 or earlier in compatibility mode (but are “rehydrated” into Smart Art again when the Office 2007 user opens them).

Fortunately, Microsoft did install a circuit breaker for Open XML: You can set a group policy to have all Office 2007 users default to saving in the traditional, binary format. Although that means some features will be unavailable, IT should push that button — at least initially. Forgoing Open XML may not be optimal in the long run. In the short run, however, getting users to swallow the new interface will be much more important.

Robert L. Mitchell is a Computerworld national correspondent. Contact him at robert_mitchell@

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon