Microsoft on productivity mission with Office 12

26 Sep 2005

A transformed user interface featuring intensive use of colour and task-driven menus will be the trademark of the next generation of Microsoft’s personal productivity suite, Office 12.

An army of some 2,500 Microsoft developers has been working on the new suite for the past three years. Wolfgang Ebermann, general manager EMEA region of information worker business group, who gave a sneak preview of the new product to recently, said the thrust of the development work was about boosting the productivity of office workers. He cited a recent Microsoft-sponsored personal productivity study of 38,000 respondents in 200 countries, which found employees felt unproductive one third of the time. “It’s a huge gap and at the same time a huge opportunity [for Microsoft],” he said.

Ebermann added that the latest version of Office was being developed against a backdrop of an increasingly competitive global economy where decision-making timeframes are shorter than ever and the amount of information has increased exponentially. “When we started with the first version of Office, there was an information deficit; now there is an information overload,” said Ebermann, who points out that the typical employee is receiving 10 times the number of emails they did in 1997.

Ebermann also conceded that a weakness of previous versions of Office was cramming in a load of features that most users never got around to using. A priority with the new release, therefore, was to “expose more of the potential of the product to the user without them having to go through an intensive training course,” he said.

The result is the Office 12 user interface, which is being billed by Microsoft as the most dramatic change to the way Office applications work since the introduction of the toolbar in 1997. The core feature of the new UI is codenamed “the ribbon”. This closely links the desktop view seen by the user with the particular task at hand. For example, if you are working on a Word document containing an image, as soon as you click on that image the menu options at the top of page (ie the ribbon) instantly alter to ones related to manipulating, editing and enhancing images. Click outside the image area and the menus revealed revert back to those about normal document editing.

Another new feature is called Galleries. This gives users a visual preview of the kinds of formatting choices they have in their document without having to click through a number of menu options to achieve that. In essence, it is a template system, allowing, for example, often tricky elements such as tables to be created without fuss, and pictures to be moved around a document simply by clicking on a chosen template.

A beta version of the suite will be available by the end of November with the full commercial product due for release in the second half of 2006.

By Brian Skelly