Microsoft is taking a brave step by radically changing the user interface on the next version of its stalwart Office productivity suite of software.
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Experts say that improvements to Office 12, which is due out in late 2006 at the same time as the Windows Vista client, may make Office more usable to the many customers who have never exploited even a fraction of the software's many capabilities.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chief software architect, displayed the new Office 12 user interface on Tuesday at the software company's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. Gates also said a new Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Vista is being made available.
The Vista CTP will let developers use WinFX, the programming model for Windows Vista, build applications that use Windows Presentation Foundation and Windows Communication Foundation, formerly known as Avalon and Indigo.
But the bulk of the attention at the keynote was fixed on the first public demonstration of Office 12. Gates explained how changes to Office will alter the way users interact with the software. He showed how graphical command tabs will replace the familiar Office toolbar.
The main reason for the change is that the new user interface will help Microsoft fit more functions more easily into Office than the current interface. The initial version of Word 1.0 had only 100 commands compared with the 1,500 commands that are now in Word 2003, said Chris Capossela, a corporate vice president in the information worker product management group at Microsoft. "The metaphor is overloaded," Capossela said. "People don't know what's in the product."
Not broken, but still fixable
While the redesigned user interface is a positive development, it is also a risky one. "It's impressive that Microsoft is willing to take a product as successful as Office and make those changes," said Rob Helm, a consultant at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm.
The Office user interface has remained fundamentally stable since Windows was invented, and its familiarity was once viewed as an advantage when Microsoft was focused on getting customers to use document management.
It has been Microsoft's continuing strategy to make Office a client for important business processes. Now, features for business intelligence and updating Excel, in particular, are the focus, and a new user interface is a prerequisite for that, Helm said.
At least one IT administrator said that while users have adjusted well to the revamped Outlook in Office 2003, changes in Office 12 will definitely require additional training.
"We might bring [Office 12] in-house, install it and get some users to look at it to see what they think," said Dave Driggers, an IT asset manager at Alabama Gas Co., a Birmingham, Ala. utility.
"From what I see, it looks like [Microsoft] picked and chose what they think are the most relevant tasks; they tell you what they think that you will use more," Driggers said, referring to the revamped interface. "We need to know if we can make our own adjustments."
IT shops won't see new versions of Office or of Vista for some time. For application developers at the conference today, opportunity knocks. "As of next week, heaps of products are going to be developed right away," said Erick Sgarbi,
Indeed, developers will probably have to change the way add-ins work, Helm said. Current add-ins, which bring functionality to the software, will run on Office 12, but they will have to be updated if they are to work in the new style.
Jack Vaughan contributed to this story
This story originally appeared on SearchWin2000.com.