Microsoft Office is the most widely used application of all time, ubiquitous in the workplace as well as at home and it’s popular for a good reason: Office lets you quickly and efficiently do the tasks you need to do. However, Office has also been one of Microsoft’s most unchanging applications, carrying the same look and feel for at least the past decade. Depending on your point of view, Office 2007 either promises or threatens big changes to your favorite applications.

I’d heard that Office 2007 had had a facelift, but I was taken aback when I got my first look at the beta. Figure 1 shows the beta1 version of Microsoft Word. As you can see, the familiar Office File, Edit, and Tools menus are all gone. In their place is a new tabbed interface and what Microsoft calls “the ribbon” (a big section that contains all the tool buttons at the top of the screen), the contents of which change depending on the selected tab. I don’t find the tabbed menu and ribbon either intuitive or useful, and I don’t like the way the ribbon consumes excessive screen real estate. Plus, all the Office components (e.g., Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, Microsoft PowerPoint) are saturated with a dreary blue look. Granted, Office 2007 is still in beta, so some things could change. However, one thing is painfully clear: If the UI in the current beta persists, a significant degree of user retraining will be required for organizations to successfully adopt this product. This learning curve was never the case in any of the preceding versions of Office.

In addition to the interface, the other big new feature in Office 2007 that interests me is the new support for XML files. First, as you would hope, Office 2007 is completely compatible with earlier Office-document formats. In addition, Microsoft has introduced a new default Office XML format, identified by the addition of an x to the end of the old extensions (e.g., .docx). The new format is incompatible with previous versions and isn’t human readable either because the contents of XML files are compressed. This compression results in little disk-space savings for text-only documents, but it does make a big difference for documents that contain lots of embedded images. In addition, Office 2007 includes an option for saving to standard XML, which works as I expected, producing a human-readable xml document.

To get a better feel for the product, I jumped in headfirst, used it for several days, and found that the product has many good features. First, I found the performance to be quite good, especially for a beta product. For most tasks, Office 2007 is on a par with Office 2003. Next, I discovered I could be productive by mostly ignoring the UI changes and instead using the familiar Office 2003 keyboard shortcuts and right-click context menus, all of which continue to work. I also soon grew to like the new transparent context menu, which appears when you select some text, then changes to fully visible if you move the mouse over the transparent menu. Other cool features I found are Word’s new ability to save to PDF format. (Unfortunately Word still can’t open PDFs.) I also liked the ability use watermarks, the word-count tally in the status bar, and the big UI buttons, which make it easier to see when you have change tracking on. Excel has a significantly improved data-import capability that automatically formats and adds filters to imported data. Access features several prebuilt database templates and built-in options that let you upsize your databases to SQL Server or SharePoint. I think the new UI and ribbon benefit PowerPoint the most of all the products because they make many PowerPoint features, such as animations, more accessible. Various SharePoint options for enabling group data collaboration and synchronization are prevalent throughout the products in the Office 2007 suite.

I’m typically one of the first people to adopt new technologies. However, it’s going to be a while before Office 2007 replaces Office 2003 on my desktop. Although I found the product usable, I’m still looking for lots of other once-common functions—such as Word’s Convert text to table and external Access database projects—that are probably there even though I can’t find them. If Microsoft wants to see this product succeed, my advice is to add the ability to make it look like Office 2003, just as Windows XP has the ability to adopt a classic Windows 2000 look and feel. In the meantime, businesses should keep tabs on this product’s development and plan to include user training with any projected Office 2007 rollouts.