Renovating The Office

Published Date
01 - Apr - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Apr - 2006
Renovating The Office
How many of us have used Microsoft Word beyond the most basic of its features? Mail Merge, Citations, Watermarks, Themes, Cross-references, Hyperlinks, and Cover Pages-do you know what your favourite Word processor can do? The first version of Microsoft's seminal Word processor shipped with 100 features; Microsoft Office Word 2003 has a total of 1,500. One thousand and five hundred commands hidden behind a jungle of menus-it is very easy to miss the leaves for the forest. Indeed, by Microsoft's own admission, users consistently ask the software company to add features that are already present in the suite-just invisible to us common folks.

If there ever was a product that was guilty of feature overload to the detriment of productivity, it would be the current version of Microsoft Office. A look at the  screenshot on next page-The current version of Word with all toolbars enabled-highlights this in a striking manner. And this is just the toolbars; let's not forget the layers upon layers of menus.

The solution isn't a pruning of features, but rather a smarter presentation of everything that Office can already do.  Microsoft is aware of this, and has implemented, in Office 12, what it hopes is something that will  expose the capabilities of its Office suite in a clean and intelligent manner. Here, we take a look at what the solution entails and whether it is a step in the right direction. Note that this article is based on Beta software; as such, things are likely to change.

Working In Tasks
Over the past few years, Microsoft has been experimenting with task-based interfaces. These are most visible under Windows XP's Explorer: browsing the My Pictures folder, for example, will allow you to do Picture Tasks and File and Folder Tasks. You can do tasks pertaining to an image-such as printing, e-mailing, or setting a photo as a desktop background. Such an approach allows you to print a photograph without the need to know which application to use in order to do the printing. A task-based approach highlights a task rather than a process.

The current version of Word with all toolbars enabled
Such an approach was also attempted with the introduction of the Task Pane in the 2003 iteration of Microsoft Office. The new interface of Office 2007 (or Office 12) builds upon this task-based groundwork. Let's say you're working with Microsoft Word. Over time, you will use certain elements of the software-you will work with fonts, play around with paragraphs, use the clipboard, or maybe the search feature, and so on. You might wish to insert a chart from Excel, or even a normal table. Finally, you might want to proof the document for spelling or grammar and then send it across to a colleague via e-mail.

Microsoft Word 2007 recognises that such a workflow consists of atomic tasks. It breaks up these tasks into tabs, such that each tab contains elements that define the task. For example, the task of actual word processing falls under a tab called Write, which groups the ability to change fonts, paragraphs, styles, etc. Wish to add a table or a sheet? Look to the tab labelled Insert, which will let you insert a chart, WordArt, equations, symbols, and more. A Review tab lists tasks pertaining to changing the dictionary language, adding comments, tracking changes, and so on.

Word 2007 recognises that a workflow consists of atomic tasks. It then breaks up these tasks into tabs, such that each tab contains elements that define the task                                                       

Menus have been largely eliminated: the Ribbon is now the replacement for menus as well as toolbars. The Ribbon is also what contains the tabs we talked about. Although the tabs are a very logical way of presenting options, you could very well spend some time hunting for a feature under tabs, rather than hunting under menus. However, a tab is infinitely easier to navigate than a menu. A new "Office button" has taken the place of the File menu; what this adds is primarily collaboration tools.

Task-based panes under Windows Explorer
In our experience, working with this tab-based, task-oriented user interface has certainly made the process of discovering features much easier than under the menu-driven regime. It also reduces the number of clicks and mouse movements needed to work a certain feature, which is indicative of friendly interface design.

It's A-Live
Apart from fighting menus, previous versions of the Office suite have been guilty of throwing arcane bits of information at us users. What exactly is a gutter, and why does my page need one? How does Mail Merge work?

The new interface loses the brushed metal look of the beta for a blue reminiscent of MSN Messenger

Don't throw a histogram at me, please; all I wish to do is reduce the contrast of this inserted image. You then have to wrestle with relics such as the Apply button. Not being able to see what an option does to your precious document's formatting without clicking on Apply is an exercise in frustration, and invariably involves hitting Undo at least once. You then have to dive back into the menus for yet another go at the fine science of word processing.

Office 2007 introduces a slew of features which go a long, long way in reducing some of this frustration. The most visible of them, pardon the pun, is the ability to see changes live. Office Word 2007, for example, allows you to view different paragraph styles by just hovering over the Quick Formatting stub under the Write tab. Selecting fonts is also a more pleasurable experience thanks to immediate visual feedback. An inserted image can similarly be tweaked for brightness or contrast, with the changes immediately visible on mouse hover.

Office 2007 also introduces the element of Contextual tabs. Insert a picture and then click on it to reveal a Picture Tools tab in the Ribbon, which allows you to add a shadow or 3D effects to the inserted picture. Insert a table to trigger a Table Tools tab-in the Ribbon, of course-which offers live formatting options. Notably, each of these Contextual tabs comes in its own identifiable colours, which is a great touch.
Contextual tabs such as Picture Tools in purply-pink here, are of great benefit to your current task

Another great touch is the Mini Toolbar. This is a context-sensitive menu triggered in any of three instances-you double-click a word, or make a selection, or you right-click inside an Office 2007 program. Double-clicking triggers a translucent Mini Toolbar that allows for quick format changes to fonts, bullets or alignment. The translucent window goes opaque when you bring your mouse cursor to it, and goes back to its ghost when the mouse moves away… it's an elegant and unobstructed path to frequently-used tools.

Right-clicking triggers an opaque Mini Toolbar attached to the regular right-click menu. Unfortunately, scrolling your list of fonts from within the Mini Toolbar does not reflect the choice live, thus diluting this feature. Perhaps the final version will incorporate this.

A problem with Mini Toolbars is that they are a bit intrusive. This is because it is triggered at random places within text, and we found ourselves accidentally clicking it, especially while triggering it by making a selection. This can be solved by triggering the element a fixed distance away from the mouse cursor.

A Mini Toolbar triggered via a selection. Note the font tools offered

Another element that goes into making the suite's features more useful is enhanced ScreenTips. A ScreenTip appears when you move your pointer over an item in the Ribbon. Most often, we rely on hovering over a button to understand what it might do, rather than delve into the labyrinthine Help system. Recognising this, ScreenTips in Office 2007 are quite verbose, often detailing how a feature works; sometimes suggesting why it doesn't, while simultaneously displaying relevant shortcut keys, and a direct link to associated articles in the Help.

Office 12 offers detailed ScreenTips. This entry is practically a help file for Mail Merge

Yes, But… What's New?
Interface tweaks are nice, but does the beta offer a taste of any new features? Feature additions are minimal, at least those immediately visible. Behind-the-scene changes aim to make the suite more appealing to today's connected workplace. The most important implementation, with this in view, is a new Office document format. Yes, Office 2007 adds another bevy of document formats to a world that has surely had enough. The new kids on the block are called the Microsoft Office Open XML Formats and are open, not as in open source, but open as in "use these or else…"

A view of the Ribbon with the tabs. A new Tab called View seems to have been added

At least, they are royalty-free. Moreover, being based on the XML markup language, they do offer some neat treats. Data interoperability, for example: any third-party application can, in theory, create an Office XML document without the need to use Microsoft Office. The formats will add an X to the usual .doc and the .xls files of today, giving way to .docx, .xlsx, and so on. Such an XML document will practically be a ZIP container holding the actual document, alongside XML files and folders that define the content of the document, its formatting, embedded images, etc. It is a very modular approach to storing data and brings with it flexibility, data robustness, and of course, file compression, thanks to the ZIP format.

You pick and click from Galleries to format your document

Data recovery is also improved under such a scheme: say an embedded image gets corrupted while the file is transferred over wires-you would still be able to recover the remaining data. The modular approach also offers an organisation flexibility, since elements can be added or dropped according to requirements. Finally, XML is data-driven. A workplace can thus leverage this document structure to enable content gathering from disparate sources, create documents based on the varied content, put up the document for data mining, and also reuse content.

On the whole, what we took away from the Office 12 Beta was that it offers a new chassis on what is essentially the same engine.
Apart from this overarching change in Office 2007, there are minor additions made to each element of the suite. Outlook, for example, adds a To-Do Bar, which lists pending tasks and adds a calendar view. Creating tasks from an e-mail is now a right-click away: a created task is automatically added to the To-Do Bar. Also present is an improved Calendar view, RSS feed integration, and a better search tool.

Outlook 12's interface adds a new To-Do bar, support for RSS subscriptions, and search

Most of the feature additions are meant for large businesses. The Microsoft Enterprise Content Management offering in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, for example, offers Web content management, record management and document management.

Office 12 offers 3D effects and rotation for several elements. This is a diagram tool for creating Venn diagrams and such

It also includes search and workflow features to leverage all the data. Outlook can now mail calendars as HTML files such that non-Exchange users can be kept in the loop. The new OneNote 12 applies OCR to collected data such as images, thus enhancing the ability to scan for and collate data. The new suite also brings in tighter integration-among the constituent programs (such as Outlook, OneNote and InfoPath) as also between the PC and connected devices, such as cell phones and PDAs.

Old Wine In A New Bottle?
On the whole, what we took away from the Office 12 Beta was that it offers a new chassis on what is essentially the same engine. The new interface is very good, and will be a huge boon to those of us not very familiar with the inner plumbing of the current Office suite. To a power user, however, Office 12 offers little more than a prettier way to do things.

While on this point, the new interface leverages new hardware, particularly graphics accelerators. The interface worked almost flawlessly on an integrated nVidia platform, powered by a GeForce 6150 onboard chip. Almost, because it did display the occasional graphical glitch… Notably, while Word, Excel and PowerPoint ran nice and stable, Outlook was a bit jittery and was prone to crashing.

But it's beta software; stability is bound to improve, system requirements apt to fall. As for feature additions, we don't think anything more will be added to the Office gene pool, and quite frankly, little needs to be. As it stands, Office 2003 is a very comprehensive package in terms of features. So would you be willing to invest the money and the relearning required to upgrade from the 2003 suite to the 2007 version? Should you even consider such an upgrade? We will answer these questions when we review the retail version of Microsoft Office 2007. For now, we can only report that the new interface is indeed an elegant solution, which ably exposes the expansive capabilities of the Office suite. Our congratulations to the Office team at Microsoft for delivering that.  

Team DigitTeam Digit

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