When Microsoft claims the next version of Office is its most important revision in over a decade, it's not kidding. New XML-based default file formats and a major interface revision are intended to make the market-dominating productivity suite more flexible and accessible than ever.
Even before the technical beta is released to 10,000 partners and customers, Microsoft had previewed Office's startling new interface, which all but does away with previous drop-down menus and toolbars.
Instead, we get a set of tabs in what Microsoft calls the ribbon, an inch-high toolbar that displays key functions relevant to the selected tab. Click on the Write tab in Word, for example, and the ribbon shows font and formatting options as well as editing tools. A number of functions, however, are still accessible only via menus that pop up when you click on down arrows.
New File Formats
If you're not happy about learning a new interface, you're out of luck: Unlike Windows XP, which allows users to revert to the Start menu and Control Panel of previous versions of Windows, Office 12 doesn't offer a legacy interface option.
But lurking behind the scenes is a change that may ultimately prove even more significant than the interface makeover: Microsoft's replacement of its current proprietary default file formats (.doc, .xls, .ppt, and so on) with new compressed XML-based file formats, denoted by the addition of the letter x to the traditional file extensions. These improve on their predecessors in several ways.
For starters, they are more compact. When I saved an unchanged Word 2003 file as a .docx file, it was less than half its previous size. And since Office XML formats are based on both XML and ZIP formats, files should be more universally accessible to other applications - even in other operating systems-as developers begin incorporating Microsoft's XML schemas into their software.
Office 12 doesn't force you to use its new default formats: You can still read and write to versions supported by Office 2000-2003. (Another bonus: You can now save files to read-only Acrobat .pdf format.) Conversely, Microsoft says it will make extensions allowing users of Office 2000-2003 to open, edit, and save Office XML files available as free downloads.
Office XML enables a number of useful new features, including live previews of format changes. In fact, because each Office XML file is actually a zipped collection of easily accessible component files (text is in one component file, style formats in another, reviewer comments in another), applying changes to these attributes is relatively easy - especially when dealing with a group of related documents.
In my tests with Word, I was initially confused by the way menus and submenus, and the items they contained, have been relocated into tabs. In some cases, I wound up having to do more clicking to get to functions that I previously could have accessed via toolbars. But other new features compensated for the hassle of having to learn the new interface.
Chief among these is the new live preview capability. As you hover the mouse over a format change - for example, a different font or paragraph style - in the ribbon, you get to see how it will look in your document before you commit to it.
But even though many menu items have shifted, Microsoft has thankfully kept the default keyboard controls.
Another significant interface change in Word: The Status toolbar at the bottom of the window, in addition to showing the number of pages and the current page of a document, now provides a running word count and a sliding zoom bar that makes it easy to adjust the size of your view from the default 100 per cent.
If you've ever sent off a document only to realise that it still contains revision mode comments about the recipient, then you'll appreciate the new Document Inspector (located under File, Finish). This feature also appears in Excel and PowerPoint.
Excel 12 has improved help for new users and beefed up capacity for power users (worksheets can now handle up to 1 million rows and 16,000 columns).
I particularly liked Excel 12's intuitive help with formula writing. Now, as you type the start of a formula such as =sum in a cell, a pop-up menu shows the formulas that begin with the letters you've typed; each formula is explained with a tooltip.
To jazz up your worksheets, Excel's Sheet Tab ribbon offers a gallery of visualisations you can apply with as few as two clicks.
Office XML's file-shrinking magic is particularly striking in PowerPoint 12. A single slide with a photo and graphics that took up 5MB in PowerPoint 2003's default format shrank to a modest 610KB.
PowerPoint 12's use of the ribbon provides a sense of control lacking in earlier versions. For example, by clicking on Effects in the Design ribbon, you can turn a rudimentary bulleted list into a logical diagram - and then quickly spruce it up with a 3D effect using other options on the same ribbon.
Office 12's interface consistency breaks down in Outlook: it's just the same old drop-down menus. What is different is the new and potentially useful To-Do Bar. Similar to the task pane you find in Word or Excel 2003, it appears on screen right and is supposed to display all pending tasks and upcoming meetings.
Microsoft says that when used on a corporate network, the To-Do Bar will display meetings assigned through other networked Office system applications, such as Access and OneNote. Until you mark a task done, Outlook will keep it in the To-Do Bar.
Outlook 12 lets you exchange calendar information with another user via email; you can even overlay appointments from various users (each person's events are colour-coded for easy identification).
Microsoft's powerful database program, Access, has got some new features that make the software more, well, accessible.
Getting-started templates, presented visually in the ribbon, guide new users through the creation of databases for specific uses - for example, tracking a collection or organising an address book. Access 12 also makes it easy to reformat database reports on the fly: You can now edit each database field from the report view, a major improvement.
Office 12 is a mammoth program; most of us are unlikely to ever use most of its features. I would have liked the option to retain the old interface - but the new one has its advantages, and the move to XML is clearly a good one.