In Part 1 of this inside look at the creation of Office 12, the innovative new Microsoft office productivity suite that's currently in development, I discussed the new Office 12 user interface, and the ways in which Microsoft was now approaching productivity applications, with key Office 12 team members. Now, in Part 2, I'll continue this discussion with Jensen Harris, a lead program manager for Microsoft Office, and Jacob Jaffe, a Group Product Manager on the Office team. When we left last time, we were finishing up a discussion about Microsoft Outlook.
"Search is everywhere," Jaffe told me. "You'll see it in email, the offline document library, calendar, whatever. And sure enough, the new Search box appears front and center in each of the Outlook modules. In an email view, you'll see it above the list of email messages. You can search for specific words or phrases, as with the previous (and horribly broken) Find tool, or you expand your choices and fine tune the search by sender, message subject, message body, or recipient (like Advanced Find in previous versions). You can also add other search criteria, using a dramatically long drop-down menu.
It's worth noting that the search results you get are based on the current view you've selected. For example, in my Inbox view, I typically want only unread email messages displayed. So unless you change the view, you'll only see results that are included in that subset of the full Inbox.
Also, the Office 12 search functionality supplies instant search results. Not surprisingly, Microsoft calls this functionality, get this, instant search. "As you type, it will start the search process," Jaffe said. "Not only can you search, but you can use a very sophisticated syntax in a straightforward way to find exactly that item you're looking for." Indeed, the results are returned quiet quickly, and unlike the Find and Advanced Find features in previous Outlook versions, they're accurate. "It's a vast improvement," Jaffe agreed. "The indexer that we're using is the same one you'll see in Windows Vista and all the other Office 12 applications. We don't want to have multiple indexers running on one user's PC."
In Outlook, search will also find results in attachments, and you can scope the a search to any Outlook location. You can search across the entire Outlook data store, and it will come up with RSS feed items, Calendar items, and so on. It treats RSS items just like it treats mail. It's a great way to find information and consolidate it in a single, consistent Outlook view.
In Beta 1, Word 12 is one of the applications that features the new user interface, with the ribbon along the top. It should look vaguely familiar to any Word user in its default view, but it now includes a host of other commands, grouped logically, that might have been hard to find in previous versions unless you are a Word wizard. "It's all about reducing the number of clicks," Jaffe told me.
"Let's say you want to change the margins of a Word document," he continued. "You might go to File, then Page Setup, and you get a dialog box. But for the average user, look at the number of settings, dials and knobs you have to deal with. Even the language is hard to understand. What's a gutter? Does the average person even know what that is? That's what a user typically has to deal with today if they just want to change margins. And you know what? I just want a narrow margin, or a normal margin, or a wide margin, whatever it is. Instead of forcing them to make a bunch of clicks, they can make just one click to get exactly the formatting they need."
"It's not about keeping people away from the power," Harris added. "People who do know what gutters are and already know where to adjust that, will continue to be able to do so. But people who don't care about all the terminology change do it, fast, also."
We began deep diving into specific features. One of the nicer ones is called Live Previews, though to be fair, I should note that WordPerfect has had this functionality since the late 1990s. Now, it's available in Office as well. The idea is that you shouldn't have to select a particular font or other change, and see how it affects the document after you apply it. Instead, you can mouse over such things as fonts, font sizes, formatting changes, styles, and so forth, and watch the document change, temporarily, in real time. When you find the change you want to apply, simply click it as before, and it's applied.
"Live Previews show up everywhere in Word, in many places," Jaffe told me, demonstrating the feature by selecting all of the text in the current document and then mouse down the font list. The font changes are temporarily applied as you move over each choice. That way, you can see what the results are going to be before you actually make the change.
Another cool new feature is the Floaty, which is a humorous codename for a feature that will no doubt be renamed by Beta 2. The Floaty is a new user interface element that appears in two situations: When you select a block of text or right-click anywhere in a document. It's a translucent floating window that provides the most commonly-needed font and formatting options, right next to the mouse cursor. But the Floaty isn't annoying like previous Office UI innovations, such as the Smart Tag. If you move the mouse cursor away from the Floaty, it disappears. However, if you move toward the Floaty, it becomes opaque and you can use it just like any floating toolbar. "If you don't want to do anything with it, the tool won't intrude on your work," Jaffe said. "And you can get to it manually when you right-click. It appears on the top of the pop-up menu that appears."
Tables and contextual tabs
How about tables? Tables are a frequently used feature in Word, and when you insert a table in a Word 12 document, using the Insert tab, you get real time feedback. "You just added a table," Jaffe explained, "so maybe you want to do something with that table. The user interface will change to reflect that." What you see is something called a contextual tab set. In the case of a new table, you see a new Table Tools multi-tab, which has Format and Layout tabs below it. These new tabs are all color coded so they stand out.
"The contextual tabs are always named for the object they represent, so you have Table Tools, Picture Tools and so on," Harris told me. "They can contain one or more tabs as part of that set. We color code them so that you can tell that they're different, and also so you make the association between that object and the set of tabs."
Super Tooltips are another cool new feature. Derived from the familiar tooltips that appear throughout both Windows and Office, and now other applications, Super Tooltips provide even more information and can be thought of as a half-way point between normal tooltips and the online help system. "Part of providing greater accessibility of commands and more discoverability of commands is to help people have confidence that they're doing the right thing," Jaffe said. "Super Tooltips really help people understand, in a very verbose way, right from within the user interface, what a command does. They don't have to go to a separate help file."
Here's how they work: You hover over any command in any Office 12 application, and you'll see a very verbose description of that command appear in a tooltip-like window. These windows also provide an entry point for the Help file if you want even more information.
"The concept of going and looking for help is totally disjointed from the idea of browsing the user interface in today's Office versions," Harris said. "Given the two choices, most people choose to browse the user interface, and they don't go look up stuff in Help. They mouse around. When we watch people use toolbars, they hover over every single button to see what they are. So why not take that a step further and answer the question right there?"
Harris told me that the Super Tooltip text is generally one or two sentences, so people will actually read them. They're structured like, "You know this is the feature to use if you want to do X." They can contain pictures, because people will often visually understand that that's the thing they're trying to do.
"In the past, if you had wanted to know more about a particular feature, you had to know the name first," Harris said. "And sometimes typing in that name didn't even bring up any information about the feature. You'd get whatever search hits happened to come up instead."
Super Tooltips are even more useful, however. In current Office products, you often don't know why a particular command is disabled. And you don't know what you need to do in order to be able to use that command. Super Tooltips can communicate why commands are disabled, I'm told. "Maybe your document is stored on a read-only server," Jaffe said. "Or maybe you don't have permission to edit the document. Or maybe your administrator has locked down the theme of the document. We can actually tell you, hey, this is why the feature isn't enabled, and this is how you can get it enabled. This is how we're handling a number of features [in Office 12]. For instance, if you save in the old file format, which is natively supported [by previous Office versions], some of the features [in Office 12] won't work. We can say, hey, this feature exists, but it won't work with this file format. If you do upgrade the document to the new format, it will work. It's not some new fangled thing. We know people are already doing this, and that they use tooltips a lot."
One feature I use on a regular basis is Comments and Revisions, which allows multiple authors to collaborate on a single document, and provides reviewing functionality for editing purposes. Comments and revisions are great, but when you finalize a document, you often want to remove these notes, and any other hidden text that might be embarrassing if the file were shared later and the comments were found.
"You can finalize documents in a variety of ways," Jaffe told me. "But in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, you can use the new Document Inspector to scan the document for things like comments and revisions, document information, headers and footers, and other hidden text. So literally, it's going to scan the document for any one of these things, and tell you what it finds. Then, it gives you options to remove them. That way, you can ensure that as you work across boundaries and move documents around, those documents are cleaned of any personal information."
Open XML file format
Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will ship with new native document formats in Office 12. Files created in these new Open XML formats will be demarked with an addition "x" in the file name extension. So .doc becomes .docx in Word 12; .xls becomes .xlsx, and .ppt becomes .pptx.
"The new documents look and feel just like documents do today," Jaffe told me. "And we'll be supplying converters and patches all the way back to Office 2000, to facilitate customer interaction. You'll be able to open .docx and Office 12 file formats and save back to them as well. This isn't the first time we've changed the file formats in Office. We've learned from our Office 97 experience and the customer experience at that time, and we'll get it right with Office 12."
Interestingly, the .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx formats are really just compressed ZIP files with different file name extensions. You can actually rename a .docx file, for example, to .zip, and examine it directly with the Compressed Folders feature in Windows, or with any other ZIP tool.
Microsoft is using ZIP compression for a few reasons. First, ZIP is well understood, and there are plenty of ZIP applications and accessories out there. Second, with compression, Microsoft is seeing file size reductions of 50 to 70 percent, and almost without any loss of performance. "If you've got a Word document in the [old] binary file format, and you've got the same document in the Open XML file format, thanks to the ZIP compression, the new file is 50 to 70 percent smaller."
Interestingly, you won't see this compression benefit in Beta 1. That's because the Beta 1 versions of the Open XML formats contain both the old-style .doc file as well as the new one, just in case. "When we ship the final version, we won't be putting the old .doc in there," Harris told me.
"We're still working through the file format and how things will get laid out," Harris said, so it's possible that the exact layout will change before the final release. But for now, if you do change a .docx file's file extension to .zip and open it up, you'll find a number of underlying elements. There are the actual .doc and .docx files, and various XML files, such as comments.xml and styles.xml, that specify various attributes of the document. These XML files are written in standard XML format, and can be hand edited, if you have way too much time on your hands. More important, they can easily be edited by applications and services. And since the Open XML file formats are completely open, anyone can write an application that creates or modifies Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 12 files.
"This is very powerful," Jaffe told me. "It's a visual representation of data expressed as XML. That introduces new scenarios for searching, bringing data into documents, writing tools that don?t require having Word, and creating Word docs without Word. The formats will be open and free, so you can do all kinds of things. You could copy in a styles.xml file from another file, and the document will look completely different when you open it, with a completely new look and feel. That's the power behind the Open XML file format."
Additionally, using a ZIP container makes Office 12 document files more robust. If the comments or styles for a document become corrupt, for example, you can still get at the text. Previously, the entire binary file would be corrupt. Besides, text compresses really well. If a document is all text, you'll get upwards of 80 percent compression, far above the 50 to 70 percent average.
Word 12 isn't the only Office application that's benefitted from the new ribbon-based user interface. Indeed, one might make the argument that while Microsoft's previous decision to standardize on a menu and toolbar-based user interface was fine for document-based applications like Word, other applications, such as Access, suffered. For this reason, the addition of the new UI will be hugely beneficial for Access users.
"We're making two big advances in Access 12," Jaffe said. "First, we're lowering the bar to make Access more usable by more people. And second, we're addressing IT management concerns around having unmanageable Access databases that can't easily be backed up or audited."
The Access 12 UI you see in Beta 1 is not the final UI per se, but it is a reflection of the direction Microsoft is taking with this release. "You can see how we're trying to improve the getting started experience," Jaffe told me.
Access 12 will ship with a host of what Microsoft calls tracking applications, which are available from the Featured Online Templates section of Access' Welcome screen. Beta 1 includes only a few of the tracking applications that will be available in the final version. Users will be able to create their own Access applications, or edit the tracking applications as they see fit. Additionally, more templates, or tracking applications, will be made available via Office Online.
"Access is one of the applications that has the new UI," Jaffe told me. "So it's easy to enter or import data, or perform more complex tasks, such as upsizing to SharePoint. Along the left hand side of the application, you'll see the new Navigation pane, which provides access to all of the different elements of an Access database." Now, open elements are arrayed using a tab-based interface that vaguely similar to that used by Excel, which is much simpler than the previous UI paradigm, in which each open element used its own floating window.
How much simpler is Access 12? "You can literally copy and paste an Excel table into Access, in order to create a new table," Jaffe said. "You don't have to preconfigure the table as you do today in Access 2003. You can literally just copy and paste from Excel." Harris added, "The semantics of a table work a lot more like Excel now. Someone who knows how to use Excel can easily use Access in the same way. A lot of the filtering technology is shared between Excel and Access as well."
Because Access is often used to generate reports, this functionality has been significantly updated in Access 12. "We've made it very easy to create and modify reports with these tracking applications," Jaffe told me. "Historically, to build a report in Access, you'd have to be a developer. And now, not only can anyone generate a report in Access 12, but they can modify reports as well. Whether it's something simple or something sophisticated, it's very easy to modify reports."
Excel has always been a great way to analyze data. But with Excel 12, it's now much easier to visualize data in exciting new ways, using the Live Previews functionality we examined previously. The ribbon UI in Excel 12 Beta 2 isn't quite done, but eventually all of the galleries will offer Live Previews, providing a much more visually rich environment. But even in Beta 1, the possibilities are exciting. You can filter by color or color gradients, where the top elements in a table are dynamically marked in a visual fashion for quick identification."Data visualization and the new user interface will help people find the information they're looking for," Jaffe said.
Tables have always been very powerful tools in Excel, and now they're more straightforward to use in Excel 12. When you click inside of a table, you'll see a contextual tab of Table Tools, which provides a single Tools tab for style options, table styles, and other table-related functionality. You can also add total rows automatically, and Excel will help you with function syntax so you can get results much more easily.
"Excel 12 will provide a description of each function and how you should use it," Jaffe said. "You don't have to build the whole thing out." And there's no more worrying about how to freeze column heading on those large spreadsheets. Excel 12 will just do that for you.
"We've also blown away the previous constraints," Jaffe added, noting that Excel 12 supports over 1 million rows and over 16,000 columns per spreadsheet. "We now support 3 letter columns. This was a feature some financial services customers gave us very direct feedback for."
Printing spreadsheets is also much improved. Previously, the Print Preview dialog would tell you which parts of the spreadsheet wouldn't print, but you'd have to go back into Excel to try and edit the document for printing. Now, a new Page Break view, available from the standard View menu on the bottom of the Excel application window, tells you exactly what the print layout will be. "This is full Excel here," Jaffe said. "You can still sum columns and perform any other Excel tasks. It's not a separate print preview. You can change orientation to landscape, add automatic headers, whatever, and have confidence that when you print, what know what you're going to get."
We also briefly discussed Office Servers, though Microsoft is still working on the packaging and wasn't ready to say much. Basically, the Office Servers will be server-based offerings like SharePoint. One feature they'll support is the publishing of Excel spreadsheets to the Web. Web parts will render Excel spreadsheet published to a server, and then you can view and manipulate that content from any browser, including non-Microsoft offerings like Firefox and Safari. "You can do server-side calculations from a browser," Jaffe said, "using information that was originally generated by Excel." Jaffe told me the Office Servers would be highly scalable. "This isn't Excel running on a server; it's a service running on a server built on SharePoint platform."
Part three coming soon...
But wait, there's more. In part three of Inside Office 12, I'll examine how the Office team arrived at the new ribbon-based user interface, and provide my feedback of the Beta 1 version after several weeks of real world use both at home and on the road.