First Look: Office 2007 Public Beta
At a Glance
A revamped interface and new default XML file formats make Microsoft Office 2007, formerly called Office 12, the most dramatic reworking of the best-selling productivity suite in more than a decade. Microsoft knows such big changes can be both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately, with today's release of the first public beta version (see Microsoft's site for instructions on how to get your copy), important questions about the new version's ability to integrate seamlessly with--and migrate from--earlier releases remain unanswered. Until Microsoft releases the Office 2007 compatibility pack, there's simply no way to know whether the new version will work well with its predecessors.
In our look at the private Office 2007 beta released last January, we noted the startling new look and feel of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook. All five applications replace most drop-down menus and toolbars with a context-sensitive "ribbon," an interactive strip across the top of the screen that displays the various functions relevant to the currently selected tab. (Outlook retains the previous interface in windows other than those used to compose e-mail, however.)
Microsoft explains that most Office users accessed only 8 to 10 percent of the functions on the many toolbars and menus in previous versions of the apps, because most of the programs' features were buried in layers of menus and submenus. In response, the company reasoned that by placing the functions on a single, changeable ribbon it could make them more visible, and thus more likely to be used.
Anybody who uses existing versions of Office will be confused initially by the relocation of their favorite features, but before long they'll be won over by how easy the ribbon makes accessing needed functions. Likewise, they'll be wowed by the live preview function, which lets them see in advance how their document will look when they hover the cursor over any of the ribbon's design elements, such as fonts in Word or charts in Excel.
The new beta adds some context-sensitive menus not found in the previous release. For example, highlighting text in Word or cells in Excel and then right-clicking brings up a shadow menu that comes "alive" only when you drag your cursor into it.
Another improvement in this beta is the inclusion of a View tab, whose ribbon provides single-click access to screen views (Web, outline, and others), split screens, multiple-page views, and instant switching between multiple open documents. In the previous Office 2007 beta, these functions required menu hunting, arcane key combinations, and multiple steps.
For more information on the individual applications in Office 2007, see Lincoln Spector's look at Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.
Migration Tool Is MIA
The price you pay for the ribbon's fast access to features is a more cramped work area. You can't resize the ribbon, although it disappears when you shrink the window beyond a preset size. Still, anyone working on a screen measuring 17 inches or smaller will want to think seriously about a monitor upgrade. And users with smaller notebook screens beware--the ribbon will cramp your view even more.
However, the screen-size issues are dwarfed by concerns surrounding the new programs' compatibility with previous Office versions, questions primarily due to the switch to XML file formats as the defaults in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Office 2007 apps can open and work on files created in previous releases back to Office 97, and you can create files in all existing Office formats. However, to take full advantage of the smaller file sizes and other benefits of Office 2007, you must use its new XML formats: .docx in Word, .xlsx in Excel, and .pptx in PowerPoint. In fact, saving files in older Office formats isn't possible in the 'Save as' dialog box; instead, you must choose Convert from the new Office button, and Convert appears on the resulting drop-down menu only when a non-XML file is open.
What happens when you try to open an Office 2007 file in an earlier version of an Office app? You'll be prompted to download a compatibility pack from Microsoft. Although the download prompt currently points to a Windows File Association page on Microsoft's site, the company promises that the pack will be available when the suite is released, now scheduled for next January. How seamlessly the pack will work is yet to be seen, but until then several questions linger:
- Will it be possible to convert the legions of legacy Office files to the new XML formats?
- If so, will users have to convert the files one by one?
- What will happen to Excel 2007's million-cell worksheets when they're opened in older versions of the program, which can handle only as many as 64,000 cells?
- Which features will be lost when files that have been converted to the XML formats go back to legacy versions?
- How much will the file conversions cost individuals and companies in terms of productivity and document integrity?
While the benefits of Office 2007's XML document formats--in both file size and compatibility with computer systems outside the Office universe--are apparent, until we can test how easy it is to migrate between and integrate the new and the old formats, the jury remains out.
Office 2007 Public BetaBeta; not rated
The new interface promises to improve productivity after an adjustment period, but questions remain about compatibility with previous Office releases.