First Look: Office 12 Enters First Major Beta Test - InformationWeek

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First Look: Office 12 Enters First Major Beta Test

The first preview of Microsoft's upcoming applications suite Office 12 Beta 1 offers new features and a major redesign.

Microsoft on Tuesday released Beta 1 of Office 12 to technical beta testers. The nearly 600MB code release is the first widespread preview of the next version of its widely used business application suite.

Code-named Microsoft Office 12, it features a significantly redesigned user interface, many new server- and client-based functionalities, and the default use of XML-based file formats for all its applications.

One of the most noticeable changes in Office 12 is the new user interface. The customizable toolbar functionality introduced in Office back in the early 1990s is gone. Toolbars are being replaced by a single large bar, called the "Ribbon," which consists of a row of "tabs" and "groups," stretching across the top of the program.



One of the most noticeable changes in Office 12 is the Ribbon that replaces the previous versions' customizable toolbar. (Click to enlarge image)

The new groups are made up of clusters of clickable icons; larger, more descriptive images; and labels that describe the most frequently used icons from the old toolbars. The Ribbon provides a way for Office 12 to expose the most often-used functions from a large number of groups (what used to be toolbars) simultaneously. According to Microsoft's Jacob Jaffe, Group Product Manager, Microsoft Office, the Ribbon delivers the 60 to 70 percent most commonly clicked Office functions while using 13 percent less screen real estate than the default Office 2003 toolbar arrangement.

In addition to remaking the toolbars, Microsoft is doing away with the traditional File menu system. Common menus in Word and other Office apps — such as Edit, View, Insert, Format, and Tools — are no longer available in Office 12. In fact, the File menu is the only drop-down menu that Microsoft is retaining. It only contains some of the familiar menu items, and doesn't include functions that specifically pertain to the currently opened file.

Microsoft has also eliminated many of the customizing features common to Office 2003 and previous generations of the office suite. For example, you can't selectively turn on and off any part of the Ribbon (although you can turn off the entire Ribbon), and it's not resizable. There will be a "Quick Access Toolbar'' available to which users can add their most-used commands.

Jaffe agrees that some of these design decisions may require corporate training, although he says that the initial response to Office 12 pre-beta 1 demonstrations among enterprise customers has been very positive. Still, 400 million existing Office users could have a steeper learning curve than with any new version of Office over the last decade. One positive point: Microsoft has instituted pop-up help "tooltips" with much longer descriptions than the previous three- or four-word phrases.

According to Jaffe, the new interface is meant to address the "non-use of tools" — the problems that occurred when there were too many tools for most users to know about. As a result, Microsoft tried to organize the commands in logical groupings.

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