The Wall Street Journal’s highly regarded technology reviewer, Walter Mossberg, weighs in on Microsoft’s Office 2007 which will be launched on January 29 (available January 30). Not unexpectedly he observes what many prior reviewers have, which is that the good news is that Microsoft did something really different to the user interface in this latest version of the perennial favorite office productivity suite. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news.
The entire user interface, the way you do things in these familiar old programs, has been thrown out and replaced with something new. In Word, Excel and PowerPoint, all of the menus are gone — every one. None of the familiar toolbars have survived, either. In their place is a wide, tabbed band of icons at the top of the screen called the Ribbon. And there is no option to go back to the classic interface.
In Outlook, the Ribbon hasn’t kicked out the menus and toolbars in the program’s main screens, but if you compose an email, or set up a new contact or appointment, you’ll see it.
These changes in Office, while much less publicized, are far bolder and more important than the mostly cosmetic user interface changes in the highly hyped new version of Windows, called Vista, which comes out on the same day.
After months of working with the Ribbon and other new features of Office, I believe they are an improvement. They replace years of confusing accretions with a logical layout of commands and functions. They add easy and elegant new options for making documents look good. And they make it much simpler to find many of the 1,500 commands that Office offers, but had buried in the past.
But there is a big downside to this gutsy redesign: It requires a steep learning curve that many people might rather avoid. In my own tests, I was cursing the program for weeks because I couldn’t find familiar functions and commands, even though Microsoft provides lots of help and guidance.
There’s more in the article including suggestions on which users are going to like the new changes (power users and complete novices) and which aren’t (everyone else), but even that is tempered by problems for power users who have heavily customized their Office 2003 menus and toolbars extensively and can’t do the same in Office 2007. However, there’s another point worth considering and that’s why bother? There’s really no compelling reason to rush out and upgrade an existing version of Office just to get this new user interface and the other rather specialized enhancements.
There’s also another problem for home users which Mossberg mentions and Microsoft Watch’s Joe Wilcox describes at more length. In a nutshell, 80% of the Microsoft Office 2003 retail store sales are for the Student and Teacher Edition which allows installation on 3 computers of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook for the relative bargain price of $150. It is supposed to be for households which include either a student or a teacher, but no one ever enforced that restriction. For Office 2007 the Student and Teacher Edition has morphed into the Home and Student Edition, but along the way the Outlook email client got dropped and and OneNote (a note taking application) got added, so if you want Outlook 2007, you’ll have to shell out more. You can either bite that bullet or try a free alternative to Outlook like Thunderbird, but for that matter there are free alternatives to Office as well (e.g. OpenOffice) which is a subject for a whole other post.
To net it out: While Microsoft has invested a lot of effort in the user interface changes in Office 2007 and the result is not bad, it’s hard to find any reason to upgrade immediately. Most new office productivity suites get purchased when PCs are replaced and Office 2007 won’t change that at all.
Update Jan. 5: A similar reaction to the ribbon from Jonathan Blum at Fortune.