Microsoft Corp. says that its upcoming 2007 Office System represents the most significant productivity enhancements in over a decade. The second beta of the suite, consisting of both client and server components, was released on last month.

Along with the existing family members (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, Publisher, Project, InfoPath and OneNote), Microsoft has added Office Communicator 2007 and Office Groove 2007 (a newly acquired peer-to-peer collaboration tool) to the desktop mix. On the server side, there’s Office Project Server 2007, Office Portfolio Server 2007, Office SharePoint Server 2007, Office InfoPath 2007 Forms Services and Exchange Server 2007.

At a recent reviewer’s workshop in New York City, Microsoft product managers demonstrated the new components, and described the rationale behind the changes in the software. The most dramatic change to Office 2007 is the user interface. Gone are the familiar menus and toolbars in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and parts of Outlook, replaced by what Microsoft calls the “Ribbon,” a dynamic strip of context-sensitive choices that, says lead program manager of the user experience team Jensen Harris, is designed for easy browsing. Each tab is organized around a specific function, such as formatting a document, and contains groups of related controls.

“What’s important is that users can find features when they want them, not that they know every feature,” he said.

According to Harris, the reason for replacing the old user interface was the increasing complexity of the products. In 1994, for example, Word 6.0 had nine toolbars and just over 100 menu items. Word 2003 has 31, with close to 300 choices.

“We couldn’t sustain the growth of menus and toolbars,” he said. “They’re designed for less full-featured programs, for programs with 50 features, not 500.” To help design the new interface, Microsoft collected usage data from 1.2 billion data sessions, examining which commands, and which combinations of commands people use most often. It examined how the commands were performed (using keyboard, mouse or toolbar), and looked at support call data to determine which functions people were unable to discover on their own.

Reaction among analysts to the new interface was mixed. Amy Wohl, president of Narberth, Penn.-based Wohl Associates, first saw it in a private briefing last summer and, she said, “I had a tantrum.” Regardless of the merits of the new interface, the notion of retraining millions of users, with its associated costs and productivity loss, made no sense to her.

Not a huge problem
Warren Shiau, lead analyst of IT research for The Strategic Counsel, on the other hand, is quite comfortable with the change. “Personally, I like it and think it’s the way Microsoft has to go to differentiate its desktop and prevent commoditization,” he said in an e-mail.

“To me, the new UI isn’t going to be a huge problem. People can switch from a Mac desktop to a Windows desktop to a Linux/OpenOffice desktop without too much undue difficulty. So making changes to the Office UI to get a load of extra features and functions and get it working in a more intuitive manner shouldn’t cause too much undue difficulty either.”

Server components also feature heavily in the new Office. SharePoint Server 2007 includes enterprise content management and business intelligence functionality that ties to the desktop applications (SharePoint Services, a free component of Windows Server, does not), as well as Microsoft Office Excel Services 2007 and improved collaboration tools.

“There’s a multitude of server products,” said Shiau. “It’s a love-it-or-hate-it approach but the multitude does give packaging and sales flexibility for partners, which I speculate is Microsoft’s priority. They are doing a good job getting out and about with partners to explain how everything fits together in their desktop and server vision though. Their sheer presence and effort is becoming a competitive advantage in and of itself.”

Microsoft intends to continue to extend Office’s reach onto servers, both on local networks and the Internet. “Functionality on the server significantly enhances the experience with Office 2007,” said Steven Sinofsky, senior vice-president, Microsoft Office.

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