A Smart New Office
When Microsoft says that the next version of Office is the most important revision in over a decade, it's not kidding. Both new XML-based default file formats and a major interface revamp are intended to make the market-dominating productivity suite more flexible and accessible than ever. Veteran users may find the changes in the new version, code-named Office 12, unsettling, but they seemed well worth the adjustment in my tests of the first beta release. The final edition is slated to ship sometime in 2006.
A New Look
Even before the technical beta's limited release, Microsoft had previewed Office's startling new interface, which all but does away with drop-down menus and toolbars in most of the suite's applications. Instead, users get a set of tabs atop what the company calls the "ribbon"--an inch-high toolbar that displays various functions relevant to the selected tab. Click on the Write tab in Word, for example, and the ribbon presents you with font and formatting options as well as the familiar cut, paste, and find/replace functions that used to live in the Edit menu. A number of functions, however, still reside in menus that appear when you click on the down arrows in the ribbon or next to the File button located to the left of the tabs.
Unlike Windows XP, which allows users to revert to the Start menu and Control Panel of previous versions of Windows, Office 12 offers no legacy interface option--a decision that will likely irritate those who have grown accustomed to Office's old face.
New File Formats
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 with new compressed XML-based file formats, denoted by the addition of the letter x to traditional file name extensions (.docx instead of .doc, .xlsx instead of .xls, and so on).
These new Office Open XML formats improve on their predecessors in several ways. For starters, they are 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, they should be more universally accessible to other applications--even those in other operating systems--as developers begin incorporating Microsoft's XML schemas (which provide the programming details for interpreting XML documents) into their software. The company has already published draft versions of these schemas, and it has also proposed Office XML to the Ecma International standards organization as a royalty-free, open standard.
Office 12 still lets you read and write to Office 2000-2003 default formats--and, for the first time, it permits you to save files as read-only PDFs. Conversely, Microsoft says it will offer free downloadable extensions allowing users of Office 2000-2003 to create, open, edit, and save Office XML files. When users of the legacy versions try to open an Office XML file, they will be directed to the download site.
Because each Office XML file is actually a zipped collection of component files (text lives in one component, style attributes exist in another, reviewer comments are in a third, and so on), you can easily alter these attributes by changing the Office XML extension to .zip, opening the file using any unzipping utility, and removing or substituting component files. For example, you could quickly swap in a new style subfile (created by programmers, or simply copied over from another Office XML document) without making changes to the text.