Microsoft lifts the lid on Office 12

Microsoft is promising that Office 12 will supply the biggest makeover of the standard business productivity suite in over a decade. Recognising that rampant featuritis over the years has made the applications harder, not easier to use, the new version will offer a new streamlined user interface.

The aim of the new UI, according to Microsoft, is to make work more efficient by allowing users quick access to the features needed to complete their tasks. It should be noted, however, that similar things were said before the launch of Office 2003.

To help make life simpler, Microsoft has thrown out the familiar menus and toolbars and have replaced them with a set of Command Tabs. Borrowed in part from the familiar tabbing systems used on a number of websites, the Command Tabs display the commands that are most relevant for each of the task areas in each of the Microsoft Office applications of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or Access.

As an example, Word has Command Tabs for writing, inserting, page layout, mail merges, and reviewing documents. Likewise, Excel has a set of Command Tabs for spreadsheet work, creating worksheets, inserting objects (like charts and graphics), page layout, working with formulas, managing data, and reviewing. Therefore, users get a set of graphical tools appropriate to whatever task they are performing in each application.

In the same way, Contextual command tabs will appear in particularly relevant tasks. So for example, the chart editing command tab in Excel will appear when, well editing a chart.

Another usability advance are ‘Galleries’. Instead of providing the standard dialog boxes with a list of options ‘Galleries’ offer a set of clearly defined visible results from which the user simply has to choose. Of course, much will depend on how intelligent the automatically generated results are but for those who like full control, the dialog boxes will remain. However, the company is saying that it doesn’t intend to retain a ‘classic mode’ for those who like things the way they are.

Microsoft says that the new user interface will appear in Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint UI. The new interface will also appear in Outlook when composing e-mail messages or setting up meetings.

Microsoft says that the first pre-release beta versions of the next release of Microsoft Office will appear in the first half of 2006.

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