A new-look Office suite

If you’re looking for that feature in Microsoft Word or Excel and you can’t remember where you originally found it, you’re not alone.

About 80% of feature requests from users already exist in Office, says Cyril Belikoff, information worker business group manager for Microsoft South Africa.

Users simply can’t find the features they want.

But a radical refresh of Microsoft’s Office productivity suite, to be launched soon, will make finding them much easier.

Microsoft has embarked on a massive user-interface rethink to make its increasingly complex programs simpler to use.

First, there’s the Ribbon, Microsoft’s solution, Belikoff says, to bring the features to users.

The text-based menu bar in previous versions, which took up the top few centimetres of the screen, is replaced with the pictorial Ribbon.

Tabs with drop-down menus are still there, but they are rearranged into more consolidated headings.

The Ribbon is one of four major new features, including an Office start button, which is similar to the Windows start button.

Then, as you move into different functions, say creating a graph in Excel, the Ribbon morphs to display the features you will need.

Finally, when your mouse hovers over features in the Ribbon, the Live Preview function shows you what your new formatting will look like. It is a virtual “gallery” of style and formatting. This new interface is pleasantly appealing and old Office hands will quickly adapt to it. Its value is most visible in PowerPoint, that cumbersome package everyone uses for presenting anything that needs a projector.

It seems so easy now that even this PowerPoint-phobic journo was ready to give it a whirl.

The almost evangelical Belikoff showed how easily one can change basic bullet points into fancy circular fields and other graphical arrangements, or what Microsoft calls “smart art”.

Once you are finished with these smart-art modifications, and click back into what you were doing, the Ribbon reverts to its default display.

The user interface for Word has also had a significant update, giving you similar “live previews” of what your document will look like if you change themes and styles. Even notoriously difficult and hard-to-format tables and pictures seem relatively easy and straightforward.

A useful feature is the “save as PDF”. It is a quick way to turn any document into Adobe’s PDF format. It preserves its formatting and look and feel, while allowing the author to assign a number of restrictions.

The user-interface changes are not as dramatic in Outlook.

“We elected to keep the basic Outlook user interface,” says Belikoff, although a “to do bar” has been added. “It looks unchanged but when you open email, the ribbon comes into play.”

Like its last release, Office 2003, there is pretty good search functionality — using either the new Vista Search if you upgrade to Microsoft’s new operating system or Windows Desktop Search on XP.

Microsoft expects that many of its Office users will also be users of its other enterprise software, such as the Office Communicator client and packages like SharePoint Server.

Microsoft has developed a “results-driven user interface and all the components talk to that”.

“We’ve integrated search, the Ribbon, the galleries, the Office start button — all of it built around what Office previews.”

Bill Gates has often said that Microsoft’s biggest competitor is its own base of users already running its software. What Office 2007 may face is an uphill battle to convince existing users that it is worth the upgrade fee.

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