Microsoft Office 12: is it a winner?

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Content Copyright © 2005 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

The essential thing to remember about Office 12 is that Microsoft has not added much new user functionality. Also, it has not taken anything away. The main change is to the user interface.

There is another change. The output files are now in compressed XML rather than in the previous bespoke format. I have to admit that I am not a fan of XML. It sounds good having a universal format but, of course, it does not work like that. XML is simply a way, and a verbose way at that, of encoding essential information. The actual output files are full of information that is peculiar to the application and whilst there are many utilities that can interpret XML files, only the actual application can make sense of the decoded file. Adding an XML interface simply adds slightly to the processing and memory requirements without helping the end user. Still, although XML files are huge, one hopes that the compression algorithm will reduce them to not much bigger than current Office files.

It is, however, in the user interface that the big change has been made. Microsoft has invented the Ribbon. There are over 1600 separate user functions in Word alone. Most users have not heard of even a quarter of these. So many times my customers say to me, “I wish I could do …” when there is a simple function that does exactly what is required. On the other hand, and let me assure you that I am a very experienced Word user, my customers sometimes show me a cunning trick that I really need. Office is so big and rich that even those of us who use it every day for a living cannot see half of it.

The Ribbon is a way of exposing the functionality of the applications. It looks like a big fat toolbar at the top of the window. The Ribbon is full of icons representing a range of functions. As you change what you are doing, the icons in the Ribbon change. The idea is that you always have access to the functions appropriate for your current task. If Microsoft has got it right, and I think it has, then the entire functionality will be exposed without overwhelming the user.

You cannot get something for nothing. The problem is the Ribbon is a big fat bar that takes up valuable screen space at the top of the window. It is not dockable. With Excel, this is no problem. You cannot fit a spreadsheet on a screen so you have to scroll up, down and sideways whatever happens. PowerPoint? Again not a problem. A PowerPoint slide is the same size and shape as the screen so wherever you put toolbars and menus they will get in the way. Word now is a different matter. Word documents are tall and thin but monitors are short and fat. You have space on either side of your document but the area at the top and bottom of the page are just too valuable. Editing with Word 12 is like driving a tank with the cover down. All you can see is a narrow slit.

So will I switch to Office 12? I will certainly upgrade Excel, PowerPoint, Access and Outlook. But I will not change Word. I have carefully configured my copy of Word. The Zoom, Style, Font Name and Font Size boxes are in the Menu bar to the right of ‘Help’. All the icons I normally want are down the left side of the screen in a bespoke toolbar. Extra icons are in toolbars that pop up, docked on the side of the screen. As I write this I can see the entire draft document on the screen. The user interface may be superb but the purpose of Word is to write documents. I can do this more easily if I can see what I am doing.