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« Elmo Busted for Being Annoying The RantsWe Must Have Hit the Skeptical Jackpot! »

Microsoft's Next "Office"
2005.12.07 (Wed) 20:42

To be straight about this right up front: we are not Microsoft haters, and this Rant is not about bashing Microsoft for the sake of bashing Microsoft. (We are Internet Explorer haters, but that's a different story.) So please, none of the "Oh, you're just being anti-establishment" stuff, because that's not where we're headed with this (and anyway, we're firm supporters of capitalism).

In fact, we aren't yet sure what we think of the latest developments. See, Microsoft is beta-testing the upcoming version of their Office application suite. They announced last month that 10,000 consumers will be picked to participate in the beta-testing of this version, which "will redefine the Office experience," according to Chris Capossela, a corporate VP at Microsoft.

The question is: do we want the Office experience to be redefined?

The Ribbon trumps that damn Paper ClipAccording to CoolTechZone, Office 12's usability has essentially been stripped down and rebuilt, featuring an ostensibly streamlined and modular GUI in the form of what Microsoft is calling "The Ribbon." The Ribbon seems to be (from what we can gather) a scrolling strip of GUI separated into modules (which they're calling "chunks") grouped according to related commands, and is supposed to offer you the commands you might need at any given moment, using a context-based algorithm. All of the familiar menus and toolbars you're used to from previous versions of Office applications will be gone.

Let's repeat that for emphasis: no menus. None. What does this mean for the consumers, and for Microsoft? For the consumers, it means having to learn a whole new system and skillset, with a passing resemblance to their original knowledge base, but a completely alien interface. For Microsoft, it means raking in some cash from all the new certification courses they'll have to provide for those folks in the workforce who will have to upgrade to Office 12 to keep up with the pace of technology.

With the considerable marketing strength of competitors like Sun's free Open Office and Corel's WordPerfect, this seems like a risky venture by Microsoft — possibly frightening the average consumer away with a steep learning curve. Sure, if it turns out that the Ribbon is all it's cracked up to be, then they hit gold...but they're not leaving themselves much wiggle room.

Another issue, addressed but not satisfactorily resolved in the CoolTechZone article: Microsoft claims that any macros, plug-ins or extensions compatible with older versions of Office will work with the new one. However, with no customary menus to speak of, where exactly will some of these features reside? When we installed Adobe's Acrobat, it took the liberty of adding a few menu items to various other applications — including Microsoft Word — to enable those applications to utilize Adobe's PDF conversion and manipulation capabilities. If Office 12 has no menus, how exactly can Acrobat integrate its own functions with Office's? Presumably, if Office 12 is successful, and ends up as ubiquitous as all Microsoft products, all of the other software developers are going to have to scramble to adapt to the Ribbon, making it possible for their plug-ins to add new "chunks" to it...assuming that Microsoft is going to release enough source code for developers to even attempt to do so.

In addition, the cross-application integration — combining all of the individual Office applications even more closely than ever before, in one "multi-purpose" application — just seems to be another part of Microsoft's overarching plan of total system integration (as we've discussed before with regard to Internet Explorer and Windows), which makes us slightly wary. As far as we can tell, Office 12 is one application, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, database, and all the originally separate functions of the Office suite. It seems that the Ribbon will hold command chunks for each kind of Office document, and the context-based adaptation will presumably present users with just the right tools for whichever kind of document they're working on.

We have mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, as part-time coders and full-time computer users, we're certainly enamored of the concept of modularity. We love Firefox, and with all the Firefox extensions available, it's a wonderful example of a modular application. If we could actually purchase a "stripped down" application with the ability to open literally any document format (with the right plug-ins or extensions) and manipulate text, data, images, video or audio (again, with the right plug-ins or extensions), we have to admit that it would be extremely cool. It would also probably free up quite a bit of memory and storage, since we would pick and choose — à la carte — precisely those features and functions we need, and forego installing any others. Are you listening, aspiring developers? Go for it! It's precisely the same kind of thing we'd appreciate from our cable companies, too — who needs 500 channels when we only watch a dozen of them?

However, Microsoft's blatant push for total system integration gives us pause, because — as we've seen with Internet Explorer — it can lead to problems down the line. Any bugs or security holes in one integrated application are going to affect the other applications with which it is integrated. As long as your applications are efficiently and carefully developed with this problem in mind, of course, such overlap problems can hopefully be avoided. But Microsoft's track record isn't so hot: this has been demonstrated with Internet Explorer, a program riddled with security holes that require constant patching — otherwise your entire Windows system may be compromised. That's just asking for trouble.

We've seen the arguments in defense of Internet Explorer, and many of them are certainly valid points. All applications tend to have bugs (to err is human, to exacerbate is machine), and nearly any application that accesses other networks or systems has security holes, certainly. But as Spider-Man could tell you, with great power comes great responsibility; though perhaps the aphorism we're looking for is more in line with Wolverine's dilemma: with great market share comes great responsibility. Microsoft is computing, plain and simple. They wield an overwhelming amount of power and market share, and should therefore hold themselves to a higher standard. Sub-par efficiency and security is just not acceptable from a developer that provides and maintains the most pervasive operating systems and applications in the civilized world. Of course, that's just our opinion — they don't really have to hold themselves to any standards at all. They're free to release software that just plain sucks, if that's their bag (but then, we've already mentioned IE, haven't we?). The only way they'll get the message is if their security holes and other application flaws begin to chip away at that precious market share they hold so dear. Until then, we expect it's business as usual for Microsoft.

All that said, we are withholding judgment on Office 12 and "the Ribbon," at least until we learn more. Microsoft's own overview of the Office 12 features and interface is, of course, hardly forthcoming with all the answers we're looking for (we don't expect them to be — that's pretty standard industry practice). We'll just have to wait and see how the beta-testing turns out; and if it does turn out to be a mutant monster of an application, we'll just whip out the old IIgs and go back to using AppleWorks, so we can really be obsolete.

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[  Filed under: % Computers & the Internet  % Two Percent Toons  ]

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.twopercentco.com/rants/tpc-trkbk.cgi/256

Comments (7)

Fan-man, 2005.12.07 (Wed) 21:25 [Link] »

I hope Microsoft has time to read up on 1985's new Coke. For example, test marketing might actually show that sample users prefer the ribbon 55% to 45%, but they better find out how passionately that 45% loves the existing product. Complete make-overs can be risky business. Just ask Jennifer Gray and her new nose.

Of course, all of this technology talk don't make no nevermind to me. I work for a bank. If it were cheaper, we'd be using Flintstones 5.0 with small birds chiseling inside the monitor.

Jesse, 2005.12.07 (Wed) 22:41 [Link] »

I reverted backwards from using "real" word processors, to using notepad, and if I need to spell check something I use my email client.

In a pinch, open office is around. But I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to typing. I HATE autoformatting. I HATE word completion, auto spellchecking, those stupid green grammer lines. etc. I like a program to just leave me alone while I'm typing, I'l fix my mistakes later, if I so choose.

Tom from the Two Percent Company, 2005.12.07 (Wed) 22:51 [Link] »
I reverted backwards from using "real" word processors, to using notepad, and if I need to spell check something I use my email client.

You have just perfectly described how I handle about 99% of my personal writing. If only the people I work for would come around to this more enlightened way of thinking. Imagine the productivity gains if people didn't have to spend so much time dealing with MS glitches.

Jeff from the Two Percent Company, 2005.12.07 (Wed) 22:59 [Link] »

The very first thing I do after installing any version of Office is to make sure all of those damned autocorrection features are turned off. I also can't stand those squiggly underlines — they're the ugliest little things, with a capital "ugh."

And Word is highly dubious as a grammarian: whenever it has offered a grammar correction, it's always been because the program has no idea what I'm saying, rather than because I'm grammatically incorrect.

interupt, 2005.12.07 (Wed) 23:52 [Link] »

Great...fantastic.... A whole new set of skills to learn, new certifcations to achieve, and new users to support after spending years educating the clueless how to use Word in the first place.

Apu Illapu, 2005.12.08 (Thu) 04:29 [Link] »
Let's repeat that for emphasis: no menus. None.
I don't think that's correct. From this article at PCWorld it appears that
A number of functions, however, are still accessible only via menus that pop up when you click on down arrows, either in the ribbon or from the File button located to the left of the tabs.
Overall I found the article a lot more informative than the one you cite. Could be because it's more recent. I'm no Microsoft fan myself, but I found this exciting:
[...] the new Office Open XML formats improve on their predecessors in several ways. For starters, they're more compact. [...] And since Office XML formats are based on both XML and ZIP formats, files should be more universally accessible to other applications.
Can't wait to be introduced to the new monster.

The Two Percent Company, 2005.12.08 (Thu) 19:40 [Link] »

interupt: Tell us about it, — a whole new crop of "How do I do those dotted list things?" headaches is on the horizon.

Fan-man: We were having fits of uncontrollable laughter at the idea of you tapping on stone keys as a little bird chisels out your spreadsheets. Man, talk about a slow refresh rate!

Apu: Thanks for the link — that article is much more comprehensive and (apparently) up to date. We'd been wondering why it did look like there are a few old-school menu options above the Ribbon (on Microsoft's overview page), and this article answers that question.

The "universally accessible" XML format seems like a great idea, too! If this is a sign that Microsoft is becoming more open to the idea of letting other developers in on the party, that can only be seen as a good thing. The added bonuses of file compression and ease of alteration also give us the warm-and-fuzzies.

Michael Lasky's experience with the Ribbon sounds pretty much as we expected: there is a steep learning curve involved, but there are some compensations for the additional clicking required of the user. Even better — the old keyboard shortcuts remain the same.

All in all: a much more encouraging article. Thanks again.

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