RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Microsoft Office 2007: 'Gamey' but challenging

April 28, 2008

As I write this, I'm learning to use my new Microsoft Office 2007. I'm finding out that having Office 2007 is kind of like being the first guy in town with a fax machine; it's shiny, exciting, hard to use, and it can't be shared with anybody else.

There are several problems with Office 2007, but one of the most irritating is the new file format. Word documents, for example, used to have a .doc extension, and most sentient beings could open them. The file format had been basically unchanged since the late 1990s. Write once, open anywhere.

Word 2007 documents have a .docx file extension, and only those with Word 2007 and Word Viewer, a free application from Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) can open them. That means me and maybe six other people in the whole world. You can "back save" as a Word 97/2003 document, which makes it compatible with the rest of the human race, but all too often I forget to select that option, because the Save dialogue box defaults to the new Word 2007 .docx format. Then I send out the document to others, who send me irritable e-mails complaining that the document doesn't open.

The reason for the mismatch is that Microsoft decided to move from a proprietary standard to a more open one based on something called "XML." The new file format isn't locked up like the old one, so third-party programmers can use it with little trouble to make specialty applications that open or save Office files. But the world apparently wasn't ready for it. Despite their drawbacks, the old Office file formats still rule the roost, because few people have installed Office 2007. I might be in the mainstream in 10 years.

The file kerfuffle is bad enough, but Microsoft also lunged at the chance to overhaul the user interface, to something that doesn't resemble anything I've ever used. I'm not one of those users who likes tinkering with my tools. I like to load and go. In my first session with Office 2007, I couldn't figure out how to open a document.

Microsoft thought it was being helpful by putting a big round button with an indeterminate logo in the upper left-hand corner like a full moon. Hover over it and a representation of several buttons opens up with the words "Click here to open, save, or print, and to see everything else you can do with your document." You have to know to hover, of course.

All the old menus are gone, replaced by "ribbons." There are now several tabs with labels and icons. The file menu is history, with all its functions smeared out across the screen and always visible. But not in a file tab. Even the tabs are renamed. In the jargon of human-computer interaction, the control scheme is now "shallower," so rather than having to remember where things are in menus, you can just glance up and pick them out by sight.

Great idea. But it took me weeks to figure out where everything had got to. And you can't just change a setting and bring back your menus. They're gone. Thirdparty vendors like Addin Tools (www.addintools.com) will give them back to you, but Microsoft won't.

By and large, my university-age students seem to like the new Office (they can buy it cheap through IUPUI, and the campus uses it). They haven't invested a decade or more in the old Office, like I have. The new interface is colorful and flashy, more video-gameish.

Microsoft's decision to move to the new interface has been called gutsy, but to me it's not courageous at all. After all, Microsoft is the ultimate absentee landlord. Office 2007 is even rigged to strangle itself if you don't "activate" it by connecting with the Microsoft mothership after installation. If you don't use Office in your office, what other choices do you have? OpenOffice from Sun, certainly (www.openoffice.com). But few businesses would depart from Microsoft even if the software giant demanded one's firstborn to activate Windows or Office. If Microsoft wants to baffle and bewilder you, it can, with no regrets.

And speaking of bafflement, as Network World points out (www.networkworld.com), what Microsoft today calls the "Office System" now comes in eight versions with 15 programs, eight servers and seven services. It's no longer just replacements for the typewriter, spreadsheet and slide sorter. Microsoft envisions Office as a part of a huge enterprise structure of sharing, document management, email, intranets and database connections.

But for me, as for most users, we just want the software to do the ordinary business functions. I don't use 90 percent of Office now, and won't use a lot more in the future. Office still does those common functions. It's just harder for me to do them now.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.comor read his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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