Some PC enthusiast websites have been tripping over themselves to either condemn or rave about the proposed new user interface for Microsoft Office 12. Some have looked at the initial press release and decided it’s a thoroughly bad thing, with even more of the irritating Clippy telling us the bleedin’ obvious about what we’ve just been doing. Others have gushed about how great it will be to see all the commands, all the time. Well, neither of these descriptions is accurate, so let’s see if we can separate some truth from this torrent of spin and hasty commentary.
At the Professional Developers Conference in September 2005, Microsoft unveiled a few details about the new user interface for Office 12, which won’t be released until late 2006. This is a change that will affect most applications in the Office suite, and involves removing virtually all the menus and toolbars, then replacing them with a ‘ribbon’ of tool palettes, rather like those you find in a sophisticated graphics package such as Photoshop. The ribbon is a standard size, and presents the tools grouped into logical tabs and ‘chunks’. So in Word, for example, you’d normally see tabs on the ribbon called Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailing and Review. When you click on any tab, the ribbon changes to show the chunks and tools contained in that tab. If, say, you insert or select a picture, a new tab or tabs will be added to the ribbon containing tools you can use on that picture. If you think about it, the Pictures toolbar in the current version of Office accomplishes much the same thing, the difference being that you can show the Pictures toolbar even when you haven’t got a picture selected, and it will just sit there with most of its tools greyed out (only Insert Picture and Compress Pictures are available until you actually select a picture). In the new Office 12 interface, the Pictures tab won’t be seen unless you have a picture selected.
So far it all sounds pretty logical, but it’s quite a radical departure from the previous proliferation of menus, toolbars and task panes to which we’ve become accustomed. So why the sudden change? Well, back in 1989 when Word for Windows 1 was launched, it had some 50 commands on two toolbars. Word 95 had nine toolbars and over 100 commands. Word 2003 has more than 250 commands, 13 toolbars and 19 task panes. Along the way, various stratagems were tried to tame all these commands and present them logically to the user. Right-click context menus present a short list of commands for manipulating the object you just clicked on. The user is able to move toolbars around, docking them on any edge of the window or letting them float. You can show or hide any toolbar and customise them by dragging tools onto or off them. It’s also possible to make your own toolbars with your own set of most frequently used tools. Office 2000 introduced Personalised menus and toolbars, where the commands you don’t use very often get hidden and you have to hover over a menu or click the expand symbol (that double down-chevron at the bottom of the menu) to see all the commands. By default, the Standard and Formatting toolbars were made to sit on the same row, so there was rarely enough space to show all the tools: to get to the hidden tools, you had to click a tiny button at the end of the toolbar.
MORE HINDRANCE THAN HELP
To quote the PC Pro review of Office 2000 way back in issue 57: ‘If your IT support department had a hard time with Office 97, where the users could move menus and buttons around at will, how will they cope with Office 2000 where the menus and buttons move around all by themselves?’