A few weeks ago, I discussed the big changes Microsoft is planning for Office 12, its upcoming office productivity suite, and more specifically Office Outlook 12, its email and personal information manager (PIM) solution. Since then, I've replaced Office 2003 with Office 12 on my main desktop and notebook machines and have spent a significant amount of time on the road with Office 12 to see how this fledgling office suite performs in the real world. The prognosis so far is wait and see.

The biggest change to Office 12 is the new context-sensitive UI that replaces the old menu and toolbar interface model with a new UI based on graphical elements called ribbons. These ribbons expose the most commonly needed Office features when you need them, and for the most part, they work well. I spend a lot of time in Office Word, as you might expect, and common functions such as font, paragraph, and style selection are up front and center.

However, the new UI isn't perfect. Some of the features I need are hard to get to (e.g., Track Changes) or, in two annoying cases, seem to be missing. For example, in Word 2003 and earlier, you can easily get the word count for an entire document, or a selected part of the document, by using the Alt+T+W keyboard command, which simply triggers the Tools menu and then selects Word Count. However, since Word 12 doesn't have a Tools menu (or most other menus; it has a single menu called File), you can't perform this function. Word 12 does, however, keep a running total of the document's word count in the status bar of the Word window. But it doesn't change when you select text, and I can't find any way to get a word count on selected text.

The second example involves converting text to a table. In Word 2003 and earlier, converting text to tables (or performing table-like tasks such as ordering text lists alphabetically or by other criteria) was simple, thanks to the Table menu. Word 12, as you might expect, has no Table menu and no obvious way to make a table at all (and the right-click menu betrays no such functionality).

Either problem can be attributed to the fact that Office 12 is still in early beta, and I'm sure that Microsoft will make improvements over the course of the year. But these problems are good examples of the problems the company will face moving to a new UI paradigm and the sorts of training concerns companies and individuals will face when they migrate to Office 12 in the future.

Meanwhile, I've grown to really appreciate the new Outlook 12 UI, which adds a new fourth pane, the To-Do Bar. This UI displays a calendar and your most recent upcoming scheduled events and tasks, all in a handy pane that's always visible next to your email window. Outlook 12 is buggy--really buggy in some cases--and the Outlook data file (.pst) format has been changed in this version, so I can't recommend that users switch to Outlook 12 Beta 1. But future versions should be more stable and reliable, so it's worth evaluating the product now. It's unclear whether the final Outlook 12 UI will include the ribbon-based UI, as other Office 12 applications do. In Beta 1, the main Outlook window features the familiar menu-and-toolbar interface, but also, sub-windows, such as New Mail and feature ribbons. I'm sure the company will clean that up by Beta 2.

The other Office 12 application I've used regularly is called Office SharePoint Designer, which is the new name for Microsoft FrontPage. Overall, it's a decent application, and it visually resembles a combination of FrontPage 2003 and Microsoft Visual Web Development 2005 Express Edition, with the simple navigational style of the former and the multiple panes of the latter. Microsoft is clearly positioning this next FrontPage version as a SharePoint-specific editor, but it's still great for general HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) editing, although the company has oddly dropped ASP support in lieu of ASP .NET. That means you can still edit .asp files, but you get an annoying error message every time you save. I'm hoping Microsoft fixes this problem by Beta 2 as well.

Overall, Office 12 Beta 1 is sturdy enough for testing, but not good enough to replace Office 2003 or Office XP on production machines. Fortunately, you can install it alongside previous Office versions, although if you do, you lose the ability to use Outlook 12.