Two steps forward, one step back

Written by Brett Thomas

November 25, 2006 | 10:23

Tags: #2007 #column #launch #office #opinion #release #ribbon

Companies: #microsoft

Who here has given Microsoft's new Office 2007 a try? It's ok, I won't tell anyone if you have that, temporary copy from your favorite P2P network. I suppose you could still be using the beta key that was good for six months, but the origin of your copy is not pertinent to this study.

My question to you is: have you used it yet? And by used, I don't just mean opened it and said, "Oh, neat," as you quickly brush over the funky blue styling and new ribbon. I mean actually tried to use the software - work with it, live with it, try to write something more complicated than "Hi, mom!"

Those of you still nodding your heads know exactly where I'm heading with this: Office 2007 is completely different from what came before, at least as far as a user interface.

It's so different, in fact, that it's bound to create a hitch in your workflow. Those of you who use the software on a daily working basis will probably feel very "out of touch" with the changes. Many will immediately look to turn it back to the old Office 2003 (and previous) interface - the one that's been a comfortable, steadfast workhorse since MS Word v5.0.

"Office 2007 is completely different from what came before"

That's not to say the new interface is worthless. Given a bit of time and patience, I think it's safe to say that the changes will truly increase productivity. Rather than being buried six menus deep, things are where you would want to find them - most features are accessible with only two clicks. As a whole, the change is a big step forward for software that hasn't dared to be different in well over a decade.

The hard part, of course, is finding those two clicks - where's that undo button now? The ribbon concept and the lack of your typical File, Edit, etc. menus create a real mix of user feelings. The entire experience feels much more intuitive in many respects, but there is one glaring problem: It's intuitive to someone who's never used the software before, not someone who thinks he or she knows Office.

Changing Office's layout is a big deal - it's like taking the desktop away from Windows. It's still the same system under the hood, but a huge part of how you used to use it is now gone. I think the best way to describe working with it is like learning a dance - you know that you can move your body, and that there is no reason it can't do that, but the attempt provides little more than a laugh for your friends as you fall on your face. It takes time, patience, and lots of practice to not look like a complete buffoon.

Unfortunately for those in the business world, this time and patience I mention do not make their presence known very often. In a world full of deadlines, pressure and an ever-mounting workload, there is just not the space to sit down and learn a whole new dance between that 9am morning meeting and 1pm deadline.

"It takes time, patience, and lots of practice to not look like a complete buffoon"

Come to think of it, there's a reason that the art is something you usually enroll children into at a younger age. It takes time to develop the patterns, poise, and sheer body strength required to be a dancer. I know this is lost on many of you, who are like me - geeks engaging in "the twitch" at the occasional wedding after one too many something-alcoholics. But dance is hard - and trying to pick it up now is like trying to be a 50 year old Olympic sprinter.

Training current employees is equally daunting, and becomes an expensive solution... particularly those who already went to classes to learn the ins and outs of the old Office interface. [separator]
Because of that, there are a lot of big companies that are not going to make the switch, and that could have some big consequences in the future. Microsoft generated over $2.2 billion from its Business Services division last quarter, which amounts to over half of its net income.

Now, I'm a realist - a UI change is unlikely to break the entire Office franchise in any great regard, and I don't believe it's all doom and gloom. But Microsoft has been really starting to solicit consumer opinion lately, as evidenced by the copious betas. For the first time in recent memory, someone is actually listening to the people using the software.

Therefore, it's almost a shame that it's paired with Office's first redo in years. Businesses simply can't run with half of their employees incapable of typing a basic letter or browsing the internet comfortably. Undoubtedly, these companies are going to let Microsoft know why they aren't buying up Office 2007 by the bucket-load. And this time, MS may listen.

"For the first time in recent memory, someone is actually listening to the people using the software"

The customer response treatment is another huge step forward for Redmond. However, this one can end up being a dance that causes the company to take a step backwards. Microsoft put a lot of time and money into Office's new look. But when your biggest cash cow is met with a lukewarm response after millions upon millions of dollars in interface research, you're not liable to make that same mistake again.

If Microsoft sticks with this new interface, it will eventually work its way to become the new standard. Today's youth will work with it, and thus be trained on it as they enter the job world. Those of us who are "old dogs" (when dealing with computers, that's about anyone over 25) will have a harder time, but many of you who read the likes of this site are already in the proverbial technorati. However, an uptake like this takes years, not months - and MS needs to sell its products in the meantime.

Of course, that puts Microsoft yet again between a rock and a hard place. If the company sticks with its new design, it won't reap the returns for (likely) several years. However, should it ditch the ribbon and go back to its tried and true interface, it will get crucified for releasing another 'half update' like it did with Office 97, Office 2000, and Office 2003. Worse, it will have learned the lesson that innovation is not what users are looking for.

Many people will think of Office as the simple and quiet launch come January, but I bet Vista will be the easier launch for Microsoft. An operating system is simply expected to take time to dominate the market, so the Windows division will get a little slack. The new Aero Glass interface, whilst pretty, is still fundamentally the same thing we've had since Windows 95.

"Worse, it will have learned the lesson that innovation is not what users are looking for"

I certainly don't envy the Business Services execs who have to evaluate what happens come February, though. The company's stock price has been holding steady despite other bad news, waiting to see the results of the launch... lackluster sales will undoubtedly demand some pretty quick responses.

It all amounts to a pretty complicated dance between shareholder, consumer, and the innovator of a de facto standard of productivity for over a decade. Hopefully, customers and shareholders will dance along as Microsoft chooses to keep its two steps forward in future releases with new innovation, and not force it to step back.

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