Wednesday, June 21, 20063 comments
I’ve never been a huge fan of Microsoft Office. I’ve always hated the mediocre layout, the menu system that makes most advanced features impossible to find, and the proprietary garbage that gets vomited out when publishing any sort of web-based document. I despise the smarmy attitude that Microsoft Office “Power Users” put on, as if they have actually accomplished something great by mastering a lowest common denominator, sub-par software application. Up until now, Microsoft Office was to be avoided at all costs, and only to be used for the most basic projects.
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to play with the new Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2, I may be changing my tune. It looks like the Microsoft folks are on the ball this time. They have made a number of critical improvements to the way the suite works which should really streamline the process of generating content.
One of the most improved features in nearly every Office program is a new item that Microsoft has dubbed the “Ribbon”. The Ribbon replaces the menu and toolbars, creating a tabbed interface that puts the most pertinent features in an easy-to-find, prominent location at the top of the screen. Basically, the Ribbon is an extremely enhanced toolbar, but since the word “toolbar” conjures up all sorts of evil thoughts and memories, Microsoft deemed it necessary to come up with a fresh, creative name. Who knows why they call it the Ribbon; perhaps because it is supposed to flow or something. Go figure.
It doesn’t take long to get used to the Ribbon. It’s new, but familiar somehow. It’s almost as if this is how things should have been all along. Hovering over individual functions triggers an Enhanced Tool Tip drop down box that explains more about each function’s use. Some Enhanced Tool Tip boxes even contain a direct link to additional information in the program’s Help feature.
The Ribbon also features Contextual Tabs that are not visible until contextually clicked. For instance, inserting or clicking on an image triggers an Image Tools menu which allows editing, styling and placement of images. The same happens when clicking on a chart in Excel, which triggers a special Chart Tools tab. Non-critical tabs are hidden until actually needed.
Some initial test users have complained about the amount of screen real estate dedicated to the Ribbon. To those people I say, “Buy a bigger monitor, ya tightwad.” The Ribbon is a drastic and welcome improvement to the Microsoft Office suite, so I don’t have much to say about its girth.
Familiar “File” menu options have now been relegated to the new Office Menu, which can be accessed by clicking on the Microsoft Office logo in the top left-hand portion of the screen. Next to the new Office Menu is the Quick Access Toolbar, a customizable little bar with commonly accessed functions.
Microsoft have also added a new Mini Toolbar to the workflow. Highlighting text causes the Mini Toolbar to materialize nearby, which contains frequently used features, such as font choices, sizes, colors and alignment.
While many of these observances are surface level, I have no doubt that there are other additional features that help bring this latest version of Microsoft Office into the modern age. In fact, I’m currently typing this post in Microsoft Word’s new “Create Blog Post” feature.
The only application in the new Office suite that doesn’t seem to have any dramatic changes is Outlook. Unlike the other programs that look fairly decent with the new light blue color scheme, Outlook just tends to come across as downright annoying. The general layout is nearly identical to Outlook 2003, down to the smallest icon. Outlook does not sport the new Ribbon, a feature from which it might otherwise benefit. Outlook does contain a new RSS reader, which can aggregate all of your RSS feeds into an RSS Feeds folder. There is also an enhanced preview option which allows users to open images, spreadsheets, and other attachments natively inside an Outlook preview pane without having to open a separate program.
Microsoft have also offered a beta version of their Windows Desktop Search, which is supposed to dramatically speed up standard content searches. The newest version of Outlook contains a nag feature prodding the installation of the Windows Desktop Search (Microsoft calls it “a reminder”) which turns out not to be such an easy task. Apparently, the Windows Desktop Search has a few issues with the way permissions are set up for certain registry entries. When the installation file runs into one of these locked down registry entries, an error message pops up claiming that access is denied and the installation halts. Microsoft has a “fix” for the issue on their support site, which sends users in a mad hunt through the registry attempting to change permission of specific entries. In my case, the entry that was supposedly causing the problem didn’t even exist.
In the past, minor additions and enhancements have made each “upgrade” of Microsoft Office an optional venture. For the average user, what did it matter if you were running Office 97, Office 2000, or Office 2003? The newest version of Microsoft Office, however, has been dramatically revolutionized so that anyone can become a “Power User”. Up until now, the definition of a Microsoft Office “Power User” was basically a geek who has taken the time to figure out every inane and deeply hidden function of the program. Now Microsoft have brought these functions and features to the surface, which should put those (previously) smug jerks in their place.