By the time you read this, Microsoft will have announced the release of Office 2007 Beta 2, a version of its upcoming office productivity suite that will be available to the public. This is a calculated move by Microsoft, and one that you might consider taking advantage of. The software giant is concerned that its users--freeloaders, one and all--see no good reason to upgrade to the latest Office versions as they're released. Users believe they're productive enough with the office suite they're already using.

This belief might be misguided. Although the past several Office versions were relatively minor upgrades, Office 2007 is a major new release that completely rethinks how users interact with productivity applications. In fact, the Office 2007 UI is so innovative--a term I honestly don't use in conjunction with Microsoft all that often--that I expect it to eventually appear in third-party applications and, perhaps, in a future version of the Windows shell. It really is something special.

To understand why a new UI was necessary, let's step back a bit and recall how Office evolved over the years. In 1989, Word 1.0 included about 100 commands and needed only a simple menu system--with no submenus, mind you--and two simple toolbars. Given the toolset, the UI worked just fine, and over the intervening decade and a half, the menu- and toolbar-based UI has established itself as the way we interact with commands in the OS and most applications.

Today, applications are far more complex and Office, in particular, has outgrown the menu and toolbar-based UI. Office Word 2003 has more than 1500 commands. To support this massive toolset, the application sports a whopping 31 toolbars, along with 19 task panes and a number of smart tags, the latter two of which were designed to help people more easily discover functionality. But task panes and smart tags didn't solve the underlying problem. "Ultimately, the task pane is just another rectangle," says Jensen Harris, the lead program manager for the Office User Experience at Microsoft. "There are too many places to look for functionality."

Microsoft tried to improve the Office interface in dramatic ways between 1989 and 2003. In addition to the aforementioned task panes and smart tags, Office picked up nested dialog boxes, right-click context menus, tooltips, tabbed dialogs, various Intellisense features, hierarchical and dynamic menus and submenus, Clippy, and numerous other features. By the 2003 versions, Office had grown into a bloated, impenetrable nightmare that had outgrown its many menus and toolbars. It was bursting at the seams.

So now we have a new Office UI, and it's a blockbuster. It's amazing because many people (incorrectly, as it turns out) figured there wasn't much one could do to improve the ways people interact with productivity applications. After all, what could you do to make a word processor dramatically better at this point? It's been done before, and alternative products such as Word Perfect or OpenOffice.org certainly haven't done anything to advance the UI. They work just like previous Microsoft Office versions.

Office 2007 has plenty of new features, and if there's enough interest, I can examine them in the near future. But here, I look at the new Office UI and explain why I think it's innovative. It's worth noting, however, that not all Office 2007 applications will share the new UI; some will continue to use the old-style menu and toolbar UI that earlier Office versions used. Microsoft says that subsequent Office versions will move the new UI to other applications.

With Office 2007, Microsoft has completely reworked Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. Outlook, meanwhile, uses the old-style UI in its main application window but adopts the new UI in all other windows (such as New Email or New Appointment).

So what's this new UI? Microsoft calls it a results-oriented UI. It's based on a few simple UI constructs, and you'll find almost no menus or toolbars. At the top level of each application window is a pane called the ribbon, which contains logical groups of commands. The ribbon for each Office application has been designed individually, and some applications--especially Access and PowerPoint--benefit greatly from this change. In the past, Microsoft wanted only to ensure that all Office applications are visually similar in the false hope that familiarity would help users more quickly learn new applications.

At the top of the ribbon, you'll see a row of tabs. Each of these tabs exposes a different ribbon view, 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 appear only when needed. So, for example, if you insert a table in Word, you'll get a new Table tab that appears only when you select the table. Likewise, if you insert a graphic, you'll see a new tab related to pictures.

Some ribbon groups contain another new Office 2007 UI construct, the Gallery, which provides a set of graphical and attractive formatting results that will be applied to whatever objects are selected in the current document. And a new Live Preview feature (new to Microsoft, that is: It debuted almost a decade ago in Corel WordPerfect) lets you preview the changes a Gallery option will make before you apply it. That means less going back and forth between applying changes, then trying to figure out how to undo them when they don't look right.

What all these changes amount to is simple: New users will be able to discover functionality more quickly. Experienced users will be able to us a new keyboard compatibility mode to discover where old favorites exist in the new UI. And all users will benefit from the results-oriented UI, which really, really works. I consider myself a Word expert, and I've been blown away by how quickly I've adapted to the new way of doing things. It's really neat.

And, now, it's available to one and all. I don't have a direct download link available yet, but my guess is that you'll be able to find out more about downloading or ordering Office 2007 Beta 2 soon from the Microsoft Office Web site. Check it out.

http://office.microsoft.com/