When Microsoft says the next version of Office is its most important revision in over a decade, it's not kidding. New XML-based default file formats and a major interface revision are intended to make the market-dominating productivity suite more flexible and accessible than ever.
While veteran users may find that the changes in the new version, code-named Office 12, take some getting used to, they seemed well worth the adjustment in my initial tests of the first beta release. The final version is scheduled to go on sale next year.
Even before the technical beta's release to 10,000 partners and customers, Microsoft had previewed Office's startling new interface, which all but does away with previous drop-down menus and toolbars.
Instead, we get a set of tabs in what Microsoft calls the "ribbon," an inch-high toolbar that displays key functions relevant to the selected tab. Click on the Write tab in Word, for example, and the ribbon shows font and formatting options as well as the cut, paste, and find/replace functions that used to live in the Edit menu. A number of functions, however, are still accessible only via menus that pop up when you click on down arrows, either in the ribbon or from the File button located to the left of the tabs.
New File Formats
If you're not happy about learning a new interface, you're out of luck: Unlike Windows XP, which allows users to revert to the Start menu and Control Panel of previous versions of Windows, Office 12 doesn't offer a legacy interface option--a design decision that will likely irritate those who've grown accustomed to Office's old face.
But lurking behind the scenes is a change that may ultimately prove even more significant than the interface makeover: Microsoft's replacement of its current proprietary default file formats (.doc, .xls, .ppt, and so on) with new compressed XML-based file formats, denoted by the addition of the letter x to the traditional file extensions. Although at first it seemed odd to be saving Word files with .docx extensions and Excel worksheets as .xlsx files, the new Office Open XML formats improve on their predecessors in several ways.
For starters, they're more compact. When I saved an unchanged Word 2003 file as a .docx file, it was less than half its previous size. And since Office XML formats are based on both XML and ZIP formats, files should be more universally accessible to other applications--even in other operating systems--as developers begin incorporating Microsoft's XML schemas (which provide the programming details for interpreting XML documents) into their software. Microsoft has already published draft versions of these schemas, and it has proposed Office XML to the Ecma International standards organization as a royalty-free, open standard.
Two-Way Street With Older Versions
Office 12 doesn't force you to use its new default formats: You can still read and write to versions supported by Office 2000-2003. (Another bonus: You can now save files to read-only Acrobat .pdf format.) Conversely, Microsoft says it will make extensions allowing users of Office 2000-2003 to open, edit, and save Office XML files available as free downloads: When users of the legacy versions try to open an Office XML file, they will be directed to the downloads site.
Office XML enables a number of useful new features, including live previews of format changes (more on that capability later). In fact, because each Office XML file is actually a zipped collection of easily accessible component files (text is in one component file, style formats in another, reviewer comments in another), applying changes to these attributes is relatively easy--especially when dealing with a group of related documents.
Simply change the Office XML extension to .zip, open the file using any Zip utility, and remove or change the appropriate component file. For example, you might substitute in a new style subfile (created from scratch by programmers, or simply copied from a different Office XML document created by you or someone else), or strip out the comments file; the underlying text, safe in its own subfile, remains unchanged.
How do these changes play out in practice? In my tests with Word, I was initially confused by the way menus and submenus--and the items they contained--have been relocated into the Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, and Review tabs. In some cases, I wound up having to do more clicking to get to functions that I previously could have accessed via toolbars. But other new features compensated for the hassle of having to learn the new interface.
Chief among these features is the new live preview capability. As you hover the mouse over a format change--for example, a different font or paragraph style--in the ribbon, you get to see how it will look in your document before you commit to it. It's far more efficient than the previous alternative of applying one style option after another--and it's available for any Office app that offers a gallery of choices such as type fonts, table formats, or picture inserts.
One downside: The ribbon does cut into screen real estate, and its size is not adjustable--the larger your monitor screen, the better. But even though many menu items have shifted, Microsoft has thankfully kept the default keyboard controls (such as Ctrl-S for Save and F12 for Save As).
Another significant interface change in Word: The Status toolbar at the bottom of the window, in addition to showing the number of pages and the current page of a document, now provides a running word count and a sliding zoom bar that makes it easy to adjust the size of your view from the default 100 percent.
If you've ever sent off a document only to realize that it still contains revision mode comments about the recipient, then you'll appreciate the new Document Inspector (located under File, Finish). It searches the open document for any comments and revisions, properties, personal information (such as the name of the document owner), and other hidden text, and then offers to remove any or all of them before the document is finalized. This feature also appears in Excel and PowerPoint.
Excel 12 has improved help for new users and beefed up capacity for power users (worksheets can now handle up to 1 million rows and 16,000 columns). Both types of users should benefit from easy-to-apply cell designs.
I particularly liked Excel 12's intuitive help with formula writing. Past versions required you to know a formula's name and its variations in order to use them; now, as you type the start of a formula such as =sum in a cell, a pop-up menu shows the formulas that begin with the letters you've typed; each formula is explained with a tooltip. As you continue typing, Excel continues to narrow your options.
To jazz up your worksheets, Excel's Sheet Tab ribbon offers a gallery of visualizations you can apply with as few as two clicks. For example, the new conditional formatting visualization lets you create thermometer-like color gradients based on the value in a cell. As with Word, you can use live preview to see how your choices will look in your actual document before committing to them.
Page Layout view finally makes it simple to see exactly how each page of a worksheet will print and where the page breaks are. Adding a column or row to an already formatted and designed worksheet seamlessly applies those style elements to the new column or row--something you must do manually in existing versions of Excel.
PowerPoint's New Powers
Office XML's file-shrinking magic is particularly striking in PowerPoint 12. A single slide with a photo and graphics that took up 5MB in PowerPoint 2003's default format shrank to a modest 610KB (about 0.6MB) in the new .pptx format.
PowerPoint 12's use of the ribbon provides a sense of control lacking in earlier versions. For example, by clicking on Effects in the Design ribbon, you can turn a rudimentary bulleted list into a logical diagram--and then quickly spruce it up with a 3-D or glow effect using other options on the same ribbon. In previous versions of PowerPoint, these options were buried in a labyrinth of multiple menus.
Office 12's interface consistency breaks down in Outlook. No ribbons here--just the same old drop-down menus. What is different is the new and potentially useful To-Do Bar. Similar to the task pane you find in Word or Excel 2003, it appears on screen right and is supposed to display all pending tasks and upcoming meetings.
Microsoft says that when used on a corporate network, the To-Do Bar will display meetings assigned through other networked Office system applications, such as Access and OneNote. You can adjust the size of the pane, but I didn't find that it made the screen feel cluttered.
Until you mark a task done, Outlook will keep it in the To-Do Bar. To reserve time to complete a To-Do Bar task, you can simply drag it into your calendar (by default the program will schedule a 30-minute appointment).
Outlook 12 lets you exchange calendar information with another user via e-mail; you can even overlay appointments from various users into your calendar (each person's events are color-coded for easy identification).
Searching capability in Outlook seems much improved over past versions. But the lack of ribbons seemed odd; I found myself missing them and their convenience.
An Accessible Access
For many Office users, Microsoft's powerful database program, Access, has always seemed impenetrable--especially compared to the more user-friendly FileMaker Pro. Access 12 adds features that make the software more, well, accessible.
Getting-started templates, presented visually in the ribbon, guide new users through the creation of databases for specific uses--for example, tracking a collection or organizing an address book. Access 12 also makes it easy to reformat database reports on the fly: You can now edit each database field from the report view, a major improvement. And simplified query tools will help you extract the data you need without having to learn any special jargon.
Like its predecessors, Office 12 is a mammoth program; most of us are unlikely to ever use most of its features. I would have liked the option to retain the old interface--but the new interface has its advantages, and the move to XML is clearly a good one.
Along with a host of less dramatic but potentially useful new features, these major innovations--at least as introduced in the beta--make for a more powerful and helpful productivity suite.