Way back in 1994 or so, while downloading floppy disk images for an early version of the Slackware Linux distribution at Scottsdale Community College near Phoenix, Arizona, I asked a friend--now a Microsoft employee, incidentally--how the software giant could possibly respond to the open source phenomena. After all, I figured, it was only a matter of time before someone cloned the 10 percent of Microsoft Office that people actually use and offer it for free, perhaps on top of the free Linux operating system. How could Microsoft possibly compete with that?

Flash forward a decade, and Microsoft is finally facing that situation: The OpenOffice.org office productivity suite, a free and open source alternative to Microsoft's dominant Office suite, offers far more than 10 percent of Office's functionality. (Too, that argument was flawed to begin with, since each Office user utilizes a different 10 percent of Office than everyone else.) OpenOffice.org looks like Microsoft Office, acts like Microsoft Office, and is compatible with Microsoft Office. Sure, it's a bit more primitive than the latest version of Microsoft Office, Office 2003. But OpenOffice.org is a viable alternative for cost-conscious individuals and organizations. How can Microsoft possibly compete?

The answer, as it turns out, is surprisingly simple. Despite arguments from analysts, Office users, and, yes, yours truly that there simply isn't much more you can do to improve such well-worn application types as word processors and spreadsheets, Microsoft has come up with an excellent answer to the critics. It is simply changing the rules to the game. Instead of creating yet another Office version with a slightly modified user interface and slightly improved features, Microsoft has gone back to the drawing boards. And say what you will about the software giant's ability to innovate, because Office 2007--the next version of Microsoft Office that is expected to ship to customers in January 2007--is nothing but innovative. It's a breath of fresh air in a market that, frankly, hasn't ever seen changes this exciting or disruptive.

Changing the Office user interface

So what has Microsoft wrought? The company has completely rethought the productivity application user interface. Gone are the menus and toolbars from every previous Office version, replaced with what Microsoft calls a "results-oriented" user interface. That's not just marketing talk, either: The Office 2007 user interface (Figure) has been designed with precious little effort to conform to the old ways of doing things. It will be simultaneously obvious and confusing, depending on your level of experience with previous Office versions. It is, if I might be so bold, the most innovative user interface work that Microsoft has ever unleashed.

You might wonder why such a dramatic change was required. Consider the first version of Microsoft Word. Word 1.0 contained about 100 commands and was able to provide access to these commands via a very simple menu system and a single toolbar. Almost twenty years later, Word 2003 included more than 1500 commands. And over the years, Office (and with it, Word) had to be retrofitted with a variety of bloated menus, toolbars, and new UI constructs such as task panes and smart tags, just to provide access to all this functionality. The UI is so convoluted, in fact, that the top Office feature requests are features that are already in Office. It's just that users can't find them.

So Microsoft went back to the drawing board, considered a variety of different interface types, and finally settled on something that it feels is usable, discoverable, extensible, and good to go for at least the next decade. As a transitionary product, Office 2007 only applies the new UI to certain applications--specifically, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and parts of Outlook--while other applications retain the older Office 2003 look and feel. (Microsoft promises that it will migrate the other Office applications to the new user interface in subsequent product versions.)

What's most interesting to me about the new Office UI is that each of the newly-adorned applications is immediately identified as an Office application, despite the deep UI changes. Microsoft Word is still obviously Microsoft Word. But with that in mind, virtually everything has changed. It's kind of amazing.

The main UI construct of the new Office user interface is the ribbon, a panel that runs along the top of each application window in place of the old menus and toolbars (Figure). At a cursory glance, you may mistake the ribbon as nothing more than a new-look toolbar, because it seems to contain some familiar icons and options. Don't be fooled. The ribbon has been designed, uniquely for each Office application, to expose the most commonly needed commands in a logical fashion. So, for example, when you first launch Word, you're confronted with commands related to fonts, paragraphs, styles, editing, and the Clipboard, because that's what most people need right away: They're going to write something.

To be usable and still provide access to the thousands of commands exposed by Office 2007, the ribbon is subdivided in various ways. At the top of the ribbon, you'll see a row of tabs. Each of these tabs contains its own ribbon, complete with its own set of context-sensitive commands. In Word, you'll see tabs for Home (the default tab view), Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, and View. But there are also contextual tabs that only appear when needed. So, for example, if you insert a table in Word, you'll get a new Table tab, which only appears when the table is selected (Figure). Likewise, if you insert a graphic, you'll see a new tab related to pictures. If the picture is selected and contained within a table, you'll see both the Table and Pictures tabs in addition to Word's default tabs (Figure).

Within each ribbon, commands are divided into groups. These groups are logically ordered and arranged, and expand and contract intelligently as the Office application window is resized. In the Font group in the Home tab in Microsoft Word 2007, for example, you'll see the familiar font commands. At the bottom of this group, as in all groups, is a widget you can press to display advanced options related to the group; in this case, the widget launches the familiar Font dialog (Figure).

Some ribbon groups contain another new Office 2007 UI construct, the Gallery, which provides a set of (usually) graphical and attractive formatting results, which will be applied to whatever objects are selected in the current document. For example, Word exposes its Styles as a gallery (Figure). But this isn't the best example. In more graphical areas--such various Excel or PowerPoint features--the galleries provide a much nicer way of browsing potential options (Figure). And using the new Live Preview functionality (which, to be fair, debuted almost a decade ago in Corel WordPerfect), you can preview the changes any Gallery option will make before applying it. That means less going back and forth, applying changes and then trying to figure out how to undo them when they don't look right.

Putting the theory to practice

OK, so the UI is completely new. But how does it work in real life? Surprisingly good, actually, and I spend most of my day in Office applications like Word, OneNote, Outlook, and FrontPage (now called SharePoint Web Designer), as you might expect. In fact, for the way I use Word to write the many articles I create, I consider myself to be fairly set in my ways. Moving to a new UI was not something I approached lightly. Here's what I've discovered.

First, the new UI does expose functionality far more effectively than previous Office versions. It's so good, in fact, that I recommend that software development teams inside and outside of Microsoft study it and determine how well their own applications could be moved to this UI. (Imagine a future version of Adobe Photoshop that used ribbons, for example. It's a natural.)

That said, I only perform a few basic functions in Word, despite spending about 50 percent of my working time in that application. For pure editing, Word 2007 is roughly on par with previous versions, but it includes a few niceties. The first is the new Mini Toolbar, which appears when you highlight any text (Figure). Unlike previous auto-whatever features that Microsoft came up with in the past, the Mini Toolbar isn't annoying. It appears, subtly, when you highlight text. Move toward it, and the Mini Toolbar solidifies and is ready for use. Move away from the toolbar, and it simply disappears. Brilliant. The Mini Toolbar also appears anytime you right-click something (Figure).

I use Word's built-in styles pretty frequently. I used to have enable the Styles task pane for this purpose, which required me to type ALT + F1 and then select Styles from the drop-down list. In Word 2007, Styles are up front and center in the Home ribbon. Perfect.

I often have to paste in text from other documents or Web pages, and I use the Office Paste smart tag to ensure that text I paste into a document comes in as plain text and not as formatted text. This smart tag still exists in Office 2007 and works exactly the same way. Bravisimo.

As a professional writer, word count matters. In previous Word versions, I had to type ALT + T + W to get the Word Count dialog. Now, word count is right there in the bottom status bar of the application window (Figure). And if I want to get the word count of selected text, as I do every day to come up with my WinInfo blurbs, I simply select the text and click the word count section of the status bar: Instant Word Count dialog. Perfect.

I often convert a tabbed list of text into a table. In previous Office versions, I would have to navigate into the Table menu to find the conversion options I wanted and then make sure the number of columns and rows was correct. In Word 2007, this is far more logical: You simply select the text you'd like to convert and then select the Insert tab and then Table. Simple.

I could go on, but the point is this. I'm a veteran Word user and I can handle the new UI pretty ably. But the new UI is even better for new users, because it exposes functionality they might never have seen before. It practically begs them to browse around the UI and see what they can do. That's no small feat for a set of applications that was previously about as exciting as plain brown toast.

But let's revisit the issue of advanced users briefly. What happens to all those legacy Office skills you've developed over the years? While Microsoft won't be going so far as to provide a legacy "classic" UI--and really, thank goodness for that--the company has made certain concessions to experienced users. The best one is the new keyboard shortcut compatibility mode that the company added in Beta 2. Let's say I want to get Word Count the way I used to in Office 2003. Remember, I could type ALT + T + W, which is the keyboard equivalent of choosing Word Count from the Tools menu. In Office 2007, this and all other legacy keyboard shortcuts work just like they did before. So I can type ALT, then T, and then W to get the Word Count dialog. You can also navigate the new ribbon UI with the keyboard: Hit ALT and you'll see a number of helper keyboard shortcuts appear (Figure). Type the appropriate letter and off you go.

There's even a section in each application's Help file that helps you find locations of commands in the new application. This cool mini-application lets you navigate through the equivalent Office 2003 application and then shows you where to find that option in Office 2007. Very nice.

There's so much more, but each Office application deserves an investigation of its own. In Part 2 of my Office 2007 Beta 2 review, I'll examine each individual Office application and highlight all of the new features.

Coming soon: Part 2: New Application Features