Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2

Prompted by Jack Schofield's piece in last Thursday's TechnologyGuardian, I downloaded the Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 today (all 451MB of it) to see what all the fuss is about. Sure enough, it's a radical departure from previous iterations of the software, introducing a brand new interface and offering the user no 'classic mode' to fall back on, as they did with key elements of Windows XP.

The first thing that struck me was just how 'webby' the new interface is, from the tabbed menu system (which replaces the drop-downs) to the instant previews on format changes (it seems somehow fitting that, at a time when web apps are behaving increasingly like desktop apps, the daddy of all desktops apps should steal a few tricks from the Web 2.0 upstarts). It even has a 'home' tab, for heaven's sake.

The second thing that struck me was just how damn intuitive it all seems. After reading the Guardian article (headlined 'Don't get lost on your way to the Office') I was worried I'd be all at sea for at least the first few minutes, but I needn't have worried. The tabbed menu system (which graphically lays out all the relevant options, rather than hiding them away in labyrinthine drop-downs and task panes) is extremely user-friendly and a genuine instance of 'why didn't they think of that before?'.

Likewise, the live preview functionality, which shows you the effect any formatting changes will have on the actual content of the document (e.g. when you scroll down the list of available fonts, any highlighted text in the main document changes to the selected font).

There are other quick wins, such as a permanent on-screen word count in Word and the addition of one-click formatting options to the right-click context menu, which both mean less journeys to and from the ribbon along the top.

However far and away the biggest improvement is the historically very un-Microsoft design principle of only giving you options as and when you need them. For example, creating a pie-chart in Excel can now be done in three clicks where previously it took seven, thanks to the abolition of the Chart Wizard. In PowerPoint, the often opaque descriptions of Animation effects have been replaced with gallery icons, which more effectively convey the likely end-result.

My only slight reservation is the introduction of a new default filetype (which appends an x to the current range of Office extensions - e.g. .docx, .pptx, .xlsx). Whilst arguably essential to support the application's new functionality it will inevitably force the upgrade issue and result in a frustrating period of transition for many business users, whilst giving some home users the encouragement they need to move to Open Office or Google's growing suite of productivity tools.

Still, it's encouraging to see Microsoft thinking outside of the box on such a flagship product. It almost makes me wish I'd downloaded the Vista Beta. On second thoughts...

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