14.9.05. Assorted Thoughts on Office 12, Vista, and UI Trends

Microsoft has released initial information and screen shots about Office 12. It is a complete revamp of the user interface, at least in the primary applications Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access. The "authoring" components of Outlook (message composition) have also been affected. So now it's time to weigh in with my own thoughts about the whole affair.

Visually, many of the applications remind me of Apple's professional applications like Final Cut Pro or even the iLife apps like iMovie. Many of the new office applications feature a brushed metal interface, similar to those seen in some Mac applications in recent years. But the similarity doesn't end there - Apple's metallic video, photo, and audio tools all do a lot of functionality within the window with sliding drawers, tabbed sections of the interface, contextual toolbars within certain frames, and so on. This is something that seems to work well in these kinds of applications. But Microsoft seems to be experimenting with taking that sort of experience to the office suite. I'm not saying that they're copying Apple (although the brushed metal AND aqua-type tabs are rather interesting). I'm saying that it's a unique time in user interface design. Office applications have been pretty much the same for the past decade, especially since Microsoft Office started its total domination with Office 97. Since then, it seems that the big changes in Office have been a large proliferation of "editions" which basically bundled different applications on top of the standard set. There have been some UI improvements. I believe it was Mac Office 98 or 2001 that first introduced the context sensitive formatting palette. This was a floating toolbar with expandable / collapsable regions that would add features based on what you were working on. This started showing up, more powerfully, in the windows version of Office, starting with Office XP, in the form of 'Task Panes'. To this point, task panes seem to be about the only major UI innovation in Office.

I should qualify all this by saying that I am not an Office user, nor a Windows user. I'm a Mac user and internet developer. Word processing and spreadsheets rarely cross my path. But I'm always interested in what's going on with major applications and user interface trends and I think that we're at an interesting time right now. Apple is making bold design decisions, some of which are hotly contested, but some of which have been wildly successful and I actually enjoy most of my days in Mac OS X. And I have to admit that Gnome is really doing an incredible job, I think, with bringing good and legitimate usability to *nix. I've even seen some Mac people joke about finding better consistency in Gnome applications than within Apple's own Mac applications. And now with the next generation of Windows coming up (Windows 2000, XP, and 2003 are all considered to be Windows NT 5.0, 5.1, and 5.2, respectively; 'Vista' is considered 6.0), Microsoft is showcasing some interesting UI design in their first beta. Looking at some screenshots of picture and video management, which is integrated into the Windows Explorer (Desktop, Finder, whatever you want to call it), I noticed that there is no menu bar. In screen shots of IE 7 Beta in Vista (Beta), I noticed that the menu and toolbar are relegated to being pushed deep within the window. The window itself is a unified titlebar and toolbar look, which has also been popular on Mac applications, and is most obvious in iTunes 5. In the IE 7 betas (which could change), the top is dominated by back/forward buttons, the location field, and a search box similar to that seen in Safari and Firefox. Beneath that are tabs for tabbed browsing, and then within that is the menu bar and a toolbar providing other IE functions (home page, print, etc). That interface is too strange, I think. It's not a problem for Macs to have the big toolbar - our menu bar is always at the top of the screen, not having to fit in a window. But on Windows, the menu bar is starting to have a new life, it seems. At least in some core system functions, and in Office 12.

Office 12 seems to do away with all menus, except for 'File'. All other functions provided by menus are now in major tabs across the top of the app (which replace top level menus, it seems), which provide big toolbars for that area of functionality.

Does it work? I don't know. I haven't actually used it and it's not likely that I ever will. At times, it looks like early WYSIWYG tools that ran full screen in DOS or on whatever machine they were on at the time that didn't have a real windowing environment. The tools seem kindof big and clumsy and put there because "where else are they going to go?" and they end up taking half the screen... But that's just what it reminds me of at times... something out of the late eighties / early nineties. At the same time, it reminds me of Apple's professional video applications. In iMovie, Final Cut, iPhoto, etc, you have one main area of content that is focuses on, and all of these other tools surrounding it that tend to stay out of the way of the content area. That's not bad. Even as I'm writing this entry in MarsEdit on the Mac, my focus remains on this window where I'm typing and I go to the toolbar on rare occasion and to the menus even less. Granted, writing this entry is much different than what Office is geared for, but I admit that I never feel this comfortable when I have to write something in Word. Word just doesn't stay out of my way when I need it to stay out of my way, and I'm certainly not a powerful enough user to deal with it effectively. So it seems that keeping the authoring area in better focus is a bigger design goal in the Office 12 UI. I like that, at least in theory.

There's a big problem with Office. The brand is so powerful that, like Photoshop, many people are trying to use these very powerful applications for very simple tasks. Many people probably end up with a copy of Office even when something like Works or a third party solution might do. There are probably people who need all of the power of Word and Excel, but I wonder what percentage of Office users they represent? And the open source contenders? OpenOffice.org seems to just be trying to be a free version of Office, which I'm not going to argue is a good or bad thing, just that it's probably even more developer driven and less user driven than even Office has been. Compare this screen shot OpenOffice.org Writer with this shot of Word 12, both of which are unreleased, I should add. Comparing the two, I'd take Word 12. The shot of Writer reminds me of the biggest beef I have with all versions of Office since at least Office 95 - way way way way way too many toolbars full of buttons that I can't differentiate from one another, let alone discern at fairly rapid glance the meaning of all of those icons. If nothing else, I'm happy to see Office finally pull away from such horrid toolbars and providing more text options. I'm also glad to see Word pull away from it's endless litany of menus, menus that I found to be too confusing back in the early 90's with Word 5.1. 5.1!!!!!! Why did it take 12 years and six versions to start changing that? Granted - Microsoft has tried some other approaches in the intervening years, such as 'smart menus' which tried to hide less used items, contextual 'smart tags', task panes (which I actually enjoyed using in my evaluation of OneNote 2003).

Anyways - Office, its clones, and other similar suites that may still exist, are so ubiquitous and overpowered that it's no wonder that there are so many grievances against them by many users. Microsoft has had a hard time selling new Office versions - not an abysmal time, but they have a hard time convincing people to upgrade. Why upgrade to something that's probably only going to be more complex? Perhaps Office 12 is an attempt to combat that perception. But here's my suggestion - learn from Apple. Office is a professional application. Market and sell it as such. Really revive Works as something like "Office Express", or make some other still-powerful-but-not-overpowered version of Office as such. Get away from all of those different editions and their confusing combination of programs. Stop selling individual programs for so much when the office suite with so many more options is not much more - either sell them for cheap, and/or provide build to order licensing so someone can get Word and Outlook for cheap. If I had Windows, I would never go near Office because the different 'editions' are confusing and often too pricey for a casual user. If you (Microsoft) cannot provide to people looking for simpler and cheaper solutions, others will step in. The Office 12 UI changes look interesting, but will they be compelling? Will the cost and licensing be worth it? Will anyone else step up to provide alternatives for more general usage? Will users notice?

If the planned Windows Vista editions (of which there are 7) are any indication, Office 12 will probably fall victim to this same thinking and users will be presented with huge product comparison grids and confusing pricing and licensing schemes. If OpenOffice.org has their stuff together, this is a strong area they should compete in. "Want a word processor? It's free. Want the word processor and the database and email? Same price". Now if only someone like OpenOffice.org, or Gnome, could start taking a look at real usability issues. Because you know - I really do like what I'm seeing from Word 12 screen shots and videos. Fortunately, on the Mac there's Pages from Apple and Nisus's Writer Express as cheap, native, and usable alternatives to Word should I ever really need them.