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.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 16, 2005

4 Min Read

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. Improved Apps
Most of the applications included in Office — including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, InfoPath, Access, and OneNote — will offer additional features and/or enhancements. Some will cut across several applications — for example, the "floaty" is a transparent tool offering immediate access to tools such as Bold or Change Fonts; it appears as a transparent overlay when you select text and "solidifies" if you move the cursor onto it so that you can select an action.

Other enhancements will be specific to the applications. For example, Word will include a Document Inspector, which will search documents for comments or hidden text before you send it out. Outlook has acquired a To-Do Bar, which will include tasks stored in other applications such as Project and Access. Excel will add the ability to work with larger data sets, and will offer improved support for tables. Microsoft has also announced improved functionality for InfoPath forms-based processes, allowing users who don't have InfoPath to use browser-based versions of the form.

Diving Deeper
Some analysts feel that Microsoft's move toward XML, although good for the long term, could be risky in the short term, since the deployment of the new format could be a problem for enterprise users. The new XML-based file formats place a collection of structured data files into a zip archive. For example, Office 12 Word files default to the .DOCX extension; you can rename the extension to .ZIP and then open the separate files that control the text and styles. Because the formatting is contained in additional files, if they become corrupt, the text in the file may be perfectly safe.

Microsoft is also emphasizing increased content management for enterprises, including improved search and document sharing via SharePoint, and workflows for document review and approval built on Windows' WorkFlow Foundation, an extensible programming model.

While most users will welcome the additional features, Microsoft's decision to teach its customers a new user interface for accessing commands and functions could be a risky proposition. Once the beta testers (and the bloggers) have registered their opinions, some Office 12 design points could be in for a course correction.

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