At the September 2005 Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles, Office 12 was the surprise hit of the show. This is doubly impressive when you consider that the attendees had come largely to find out about Windows Vista, Microsoft's long-awaited operating system, and the fact that Office isn't exactly a product that engenders a lot of enthusiasm. Sure, there are Office experts, but few people would claim to be Office enthusiasts.

The reason for this excitement is the new results-oriented user interface that Microsoft created for Office 12. If you thought, as I did, just a few short months ago, that the interface one could use for office productivity applications was pretty much set in stone by this point, then the arrival of this new interface was both shocking and exciting. In previous Office applications, commands are exposed via now common menus and toolbars. The problem is that this interface has outlived its usefulness: Whereas the original version of Microsoft Word, for example, had about 100 commands, so the menus and toolbars were small and easily understood. Microsoft Word 2003, however, has over 1500 commands. Menus and toolbars just aren't cutting it anymore.

By overloading the Office interface with crowded menus and toolbars, Microsoft was making it hard for users to find functionality. An ironic outcome of this fact is that many of the top 10 user requests for the past three Office revisions have been features that already existed in the suite. The problem was that users just couldn't find the features.

Over the years, Microsoft has tried to address these problems by adding new user interface elements that expose functionality in more discoverable ways. Task panes, Smart Tags, and smart menus are all examples of these efforts. But these efforts really just maxed the complexity problems in Microsoft Office and were, in Microsoft's own words, a way to just "paint the pig" and not actually fix the core problem. Clearly, a daring new user interface was required. And about two years ago, Microsoft began working on what would become the new Office 12 user interface.

In September, I spent about two hours with Jensen Harris, a lead program manager for Microsoft Office, and the person most directly responsible for the new results-oriented interface found in Office 12. Harris took me on a lengthy tour of the Office 12 UI, showing off the new tab-based paradigm, which presents a ribbons of functions in place of the more typical menu and toolbars. These ribbons are context sensitive, meaning that features will be easier to find and relevant to what you're currently working on. I came away from PDC excited and energized by what I had seen. The only problem was that I had never recorded our talk, so Harris and I made plans to speak again on the record. Two months later, we met up, and with Jacob Jaffe, a Group Product Manager on the Office team, to discuss Office 12 again, this time in the context of the soon-to-be released Office 12 Beta 1. As Jaffe and Harris told me at the time, Office 12 Beta 1 would focus largely on the Office client applications, while server-side functionality would arrive in time for Beta 2. This showcase is derived from these lengthy discussions with the Office team and attempts to put this most revolutionary version of Office in perspective. I'll offer a more traditional review of Office 12 when Beta 2 arrives.

Setting the stage

"We consider Office 12 to be the most significant release of Microsoft Office in the last ten years," Jaffe told me. "We're making huge client and server-side investments in this release, and then also client and server integration investments."

Microsoft thinks of Office 12 in terms of the "new world of work" marketing concept that it first introduced earlier this year in an executive email from Bill Gates to the company's customers. "The scenarios that exist around information work are different today and will be different in the future, compared to five years ago, or ten years ago," Jaffe said, noting that Microsoft is focused on four general customer trends with Office 12: workforce evolution; one world of business; always on, always connected; and transparent organizations.

"Workforce evolutions" speaks to the idea that there is a maturing workforce who will soon be retiring, and a younger generation that is just now entering the workforce. Businesses want to retain the knowledge that maturing works have, and provide them with tools that are both easy to use and useful. And the younger generation--those people who are in college today--are using blogging, social networking, and other technologies today in ways that haven't previously been used in the workforce. As these people enter the workforce, there is an expectation that they will continue to use technology in those new ways. So Office 12 must help both of these groups of people get better results faster.

With "one world of business," Microsoft is tackling the notion that geographic and time zone boundaries are being broken down. Customers want to connect directly with partners and suppliers, and organizations want to connect directly with their customers. So Office 12 will help people work across those boundaries.

In contrast to how things were five or ten years ago, when the challenge was getting connected, today, it's "always on, always connected." "Arguably, we're too connected," Jaffe noted. "Nobody complains that they get too little email." The masses of information that people have to cull through in order to make decisions is a big pain point, and Office 12 will help streamline access to that information, I was told.

Finally, there is the notion of the "transparent organization." The idea here is that companies are having to expose their processes and manage their processes in ways they haven't had to do before, largely because of government or shareholder oversight. In health care, for example, the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is an obvious example. So Office 12 will help customers manage their content and control their business processes better than previous versions.

Getting better results faster

OK, enough generalities. As mentioned above, Office 12 features a radical new user interface that includes a number of different elements, or components. The most prominent new element is what we're codenaming the ribbon. The ribbon is designed to provide commands in an intuitive way, to collect them into logical groupings. "As a user, I can focus on the results I'm trying to drive, as opposed to [worrying about] where the command actually lives," Jaffe told me. "We're moving away from a commands-based interface, which is how you might think of Office 2003 and prior, to a results-oriented interface. It's designed to make features and functionality more accessible and more discoverable. It will also help users have confidence in terms of not only seeing those commands but also using them in the right way."

Instead of top-level menus, Office 12 utilizes a row of tabs. Within each tab, you see groups functionality within the ribbon. "We're actually engaged in a feature-naming process right now," Jaffe said. "Ribbon is a codename. Each ribbon is compromised of groups and they can have galleries as well. We have a whole tiered approach to the UI, where specific elements can exist within the ribbon itself."

"We talked about 'chunks' last time [at PDC]," Jensen reminded me. "The new word for chunks is groups."

In any Office 12 application, there is a default tab, or home tab, that displays when you first launch the application. In the ribbon for that tab, you will see the most commonly needed functionality. In Word 12, then, the default tab is Write, and its ribbon has groups called Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, Quick Formatting, and Find. If you want to insert something into your document, select the Insert tab. There are also tabs for Page Layout, References, Mailings, and Review.

Some of the ribbon groups contain galleries. These galleries, such as that found in Quick Formatting in Word, provide live previews. You can hover over them and watch effect be temporarily applied to whatever you've selected. In PowerPoint, you can use this functionality to move from theme to theme and see how the changes will apply in a preview mode. If you want to actually select a choice, simply click it.

"Today, you have go through a reasonably complex series of menu commands to make a particular selection," Jaffe said. "And then you click on OK, and sort of hope that it's the selection you want. And lots of times, it's not. Here [in Office 12], I get real time feedback, and if I don't want to make a change, I just move away and nothing gets applied. [In PowerPoint], all the animation commands, all the slideshow commands, all the other commands, are all consolidated, very neatly."

"It is about getting better results faster, so the goal is to reduce mouse movements and mouse clicks," he added. "What we've seen in our early testing is that we're actually seeing a reduction in of 60 to 65 percent in mouse clicks and movement with this new user interface, specifically with the ribbon."

One question that arises early is whether this new interface will be too shocking for some users. Harris told me that user reactions to the new UI vary wildly based on their experience with previous Office versions. "The people who are the most shocked, actually, are the super elite expert users, who know where every single command is in the previous version," he told me. "We've had people come in who are not experienced [with Office] and sit down in our usability lab and not only feel comfortable using it, but they've said things like, 'oh, this is the version I have on my computer at home.' One of our design goals was to make the home tab, the first tab you see in each application, very comfortable. It contains a lot of the same commands that [the] Standard and Formatting [toolbars] have [today in existing Office versions] so that you can sit down, your first day, your first hour, and be productive right away."

Jensen admitted that there would be a learning curve to Office 12 but that it's not incredibly steep. "It's pretty benign up front," he said. "But if you are an expert, and you know where every single tool was [in previous versions], then you will need to learn where those things are in the new product. Most people are productive really quickly."

One of the big fears I had after PDC was that Microsoft's corporate customers would complain about retraining costs and that the software giant would back down and either remove the innovative UI completely or water it down with options to return to a more traditional menus and toolbars-based UI. But Harris and Jaffe told me that wasn't going to happen.

"We really believe that this is the right direction for productivity software and it's interesting that Office is something you don't think of as engendering passion from people," Harris said. "And some of the feedback we've gotten is that we've really created something that creates a passionate following. People feel like they can get behind it. One of the reasons we do testing over a long period of time is we try to see what the initial learning curve is, how long it takes to be productive, and how much better it gets over time. We do what's called longitudinal usability studies, where we actually deploy companies on Beta 1, where we go visit them onsite daily or weekly and watch what they do. And one of the last things we do at the end of the trial is take off Office 12 and put back Office 2003 and see what that effect is. And not only do they freak out, but they wonder where all the features went. They don't realize how much is there until you take it away. That's been the most telling thing for us ... This is something that takes month. You can't do it in one hour in a lab behind a two-way mirror."

"You have the bits and I think you're finding this out as well," Jaffe added. "As a personal anecdote, I have a variety of PCs, and on one of those machines for a variety of reasons, I still have Office 2003 installed. I use Office 12 essentially full time, and for me to go back into 2003 is not so good. It's pretty painful, actually."

He's right of course. On the other hand, as an experienced Office user with very set habits, I have run into a small number of issues using the new UI. For example, the results-oriented UI doesn't reward familiarity in any way. I typically use the Reviewing functionality with documents that have been edited at work, and in Office 12, I always need to navigate to the Review tab in order to enable Track Changes. In Office 2003, I simply have the Reviewing toolbar displayed at all times, and that Track Changes button is always available. To be fair, there are ways to get around this. For example, you can right-click any command in the ribbon, including Track Changes, and add it to the Quick Access toolbar, a vestigial toolbar that sits to the left of the tabs in each Office 12 application. That way, it's always available. But because this requires a different skill set to accomplish, I had to relearn how to do this. Long story short, most things are easier, but some power user features will require some more work.

I'm nitpicking here, of course. The truth is, the Office 12 interface is so much dramatically better than previous versions, it's hard to find fault with it. On the other hand, I am a power user who uses Office all day long, and I slightly resent having to relearn certain skills. I'll get over it.

"Consistency across the Office 12 applications is a core area of investment as well," Jaffe noted. "You've probably noticed that PowerPoint charts and Excel charts don't exactly work the same or produce the same results [in current Office versions]. That goes away in Office 12. So we're upgrading and improving the chart engine and applying it across all applications that use it. Tables will be the same as well."

"The cool thing about it is; its bumper bowling," Harris added. "You don't have to be an expert or even know what it is you're trying to get to. You try different things, it's very visual, it's very quick, and then you stumble on something that's really cool. There's no way the ball goes in the gutter. You don't ever end up in a dead end you can't fix."

As a poster child for getting better results faster, consider OneNote, which I've been using since the beta in mid-2003 as my sole application for note-taking. I typically use OneNote solely for text-based notes, and audio recordings of meetings, but it's a great general tool for capturing all kinds of information, including typewritten notes, audio, or video. You can do research from within OneNote, grab information from the Web, and collect it into a single place. I've found OneNote to be an indespensible tool, which makes sense when you consider what I do for a living.

OneNote 12 includes a number of new features, which I'll examine more thoroughly in a later review, including supporting multiple notebooks, the drag and drop copying of notes, and a new left-hand navigation pane. But OneNote 12 also includes a dramatically better Screen Clipping feature. You may know that when you perform a screen clipping in the current version of OneNote, it's just a dead image. But in OneNote 12, when you search for text, it automatically applies OCR (optical character recognition) technology and searches the pasted images as well. Suddenly, a great great way to capture a variety of information is even better, because even graphics (that contain captured text) can be searched. This works with all kinds of Office documents, of course, including PowerPoint files, PDF files, and many others.

"We're also enabling a new mobile scenario with OneNote Mobile," Jaffe told me. "So literally you'll be able to have a OneNote notebook available to you on a mobile device, like a Windows Powered Smartphone. You can take notes on your Smartphone, or read your [PC-based notes on the Smartphone. The pages in that Smartphone notebook align to the information you have in your PC version of OneNote. They sync up through ActiveSync."

Working across boundaries

There's no single application that better represents working across boundaries than Outlook 12. In this version, Microsoft is providing a four column interface by default, compared to three in Outlook 2003. "The Reading pane is right up front and center now," Jaffe told me. The new addition is called the To-Do bar and its found on the right side of the Outlook 12 interface.

"The To-Do bar is designed to address customer requests that Outlook has a better or more integrated view of the information they work with every day," Jaffe said. "This could be mail, calendar, appointments, and, perhaps most notably, tasks. Task integration is one of our core investments in Outlook 12." Indeed, the To-Do bar is very similar to the Outlook Today screen that graced previous Outlook versions, with two main differences: It's available in your most commonly accessed Outlook view, and its far more interactive.

"In terms of time and task integration, there are two different [ramifications to the To-Do bar]," Jaffe said. "One, you can see your tasks, and in an integrated way. And two, we've gotten smarter about the fact that you can have tasks created in a wide variety of ways. You can create OneNote tasks, Project tasks, SharePoint tasks, Outlook tasks. With Outlook 12, you'll have one view into all of those tasks and they'll maintain connectivity with one another. If you're the type of person that actually creates to-do items in OneNote, you'll be able to publish those to Outlook of course, and if you clear an item in Outlook, it will be cleared in OneNote. And vice versa."

There are many, many other improvements in Outlook 12. For example, while previous versions let you create a task to follow-up an email, Outlook 12 takes this functionality to the next level. When you right-click on an email message in Outlook 12, you see a variety of follow up possibilities, including Today, Tomorrow, This Week, Next Week, No Date, and Custom. And now, email tasks are automatically added to the To-Do Bar of course. "It's very easy now to create tasks from email," Jaffe told me. "I can also type new tasks directly into the Task Input Panel [in the To-Do Bar]."

Looking for more? Outlook 12 supports inline viewing of virtually all attachment types. That includes such documents as Word documents, or even PowerPoint presentations, complete with transitions and animations: They appears inline right in the email message. Outlook 12 will ship with viewers for common document types, but third parties can build their own viewers as well, thanks to an extensible platform.

For you corporate types, Outlook 12 also supports a new mail type that integrates directly with InfoPath. "Now, you never need to leave Outlook," Jaffe told me. "You can send InfoPath forms, and fill out InfoPath forms that others have sent, all with the same rich InfoPath controls, but from within OneNote."

Outlook 12 also sports a dramatically improved calendar module. In addition to the fact that calendar simply looks better in Outlook 12, Microsoft is also dramatically improving its usability. For example, while users on the same Exchange system can easily compare schedules and create appointments and meetings that take into account other users' schedules, Outlook has never really supported that kind of functionality for non-Exchange users, or for Exchange users that want to collaborate with others that aren't using Exchange. "As we think about working across boundaries and collaborating with others, and sharing calendars with other people, there's a whole new category of investment we've made in Outlook 12," Jaffe told me. Now, you can create a snapshot of your calendar, in HTML format, that you can email to others. "It's easy to show people when you're busy and free, via email," Jaffe added. "It offers a granular level of control, so you can just show them free and busy times, or detailed schedule information." And because it's just HTML, it doesn't require Outlook on the other end.

You can also use the calendar view to manage tasks, thanks to a new Tasks well at the bottom of the window. Here, you can see categorized tasks that you've assigned to specific days. You can also drag and drop these tasks to reassign them to different days, or drop them directly into the calendar to turn them into appointments. As you move tasks around the Tasks Well, the To-Do bar changes to match. It's incredibly useful and, once you've used it, so intuitive that you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. That, in many ways, is true of much of Office 12 when you think about it.

Continue to "Inside Office 12 Part 2.