Microsoft have completely changed the user interface in Office 2007. The new
user interface is called the ‘Ribbon’, and it replaces all the menus and
toolbars in previous versions of Office.
I myself haven't yet tried the new ribbon, but large numbers of beta users have already provided lots of feedback, and, reading the press, I get the impression it's generally neutral to positive.
An example of a very positive review is below:
My experience has been that Word went from being frustrating and confusing to fairly straightforward to use. PowerPoint went, in a single upgrade, from being the worst widely-available presentation software to being the best.
Here is a more mixed review:
Even though the many aspects of the Ribbon present a significant change for experienced Office users, I think the advantages of the new user interface outweigh the retraining this new feature will entail. I was initially very skeptical about this, but the Ribbon offers so many visual cues and smart feature improvements that I think experienced Office users will not have much difficulty adapting to it. ...But... Why couldn’t Microsoft leave at least a semblance of the old menu system in Office 2007 to help people who have extensive classic-menu muscle memory? ... It seems to me that Microsoft may have drunk its own Kool-Aid a bit too much when it decided to drop entirely the "legacy" classic menu system. It might have been better to make that an option that some of us could turn back on...
With no option to revert to 'classic menus' Microsoft are gambling on users quickly learning to love the new menu system. If users were to react to the Office 2007 Ribbon in the same way as they did to the now dead Office Assistant, Microsoft would find itself in a very hot water.
Kingsley Joseph writes:
Short and sweet, the Ribbon and new UI in Microsoft Office 2007 is the ballsiest new feature in the history of computer software... To clarify the point: Microsoft Office is a bigger business than most of us probably realize. Office generated $11.5 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2005, and it'll exceed that in the current calendar year. But conservatively, you're talking about a billion dollars a month.
Now, most of us who like to prognosticate and pontificate about software like to say things like "It'd be easy to just..." or "It's trivial to add..." but the thing is, most of us aren't betting our entire careers on the little tweaks and changes we'd like to make to our productivity applications. Try making a mistake that jeopardizes a business that makes $250 million a week...
Companies as large as Microsoft don't take bet-the-company style risks. What's more, the market for third-party applications on top of Office is bigger than most stand-alone software companies. There's a real risk of jeopardizing those line-of-business customizations that most large organizations use alongside Office.
Is Microsoft right to be taking this kind of risk? Hold on, there is another angle...
By making Office 2007 significantly different from Office XP upgrade sales should be much higher. It’s harder and harder to add useful new features to Word, so concentrating on user friendliness and aesthetic design makes a lot of sense. Instead of being just another upgrade, there is now an enormous difference between the old and new versions.
"One of the biggest challenges... is to fight that perception that old versions of software are good enough... Our business model of course allows you to keep using Office 2003 - the software doesn't really expire, " said Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Business Division.
In addition to the upgrade benefits, after having the market all to itself for many years Microsoft is now facing real competition for the first time. No one can compete with Microsoft by building better desktop applications, so now competitors give away ‘good enough’ versions for free. Sun Microsystems turned it’s unsuccessful Star Office into the free Open Office, and maintains it with a 100 strong team of paid software engineers and a number of volunteer programmers (today Office runs at about 400m users worldwide and Open Office is said to have perhaps as many as 40m users).
Microsoft are allowing other vendors to use the Ribbon for free subject to a no-compete with Office clause….
The [Ribbon] license is available for applications on any platform, except for applications that compete directly with the five Office applications that currently have the new UI (Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access).
The golden scenario Microsoft will be hoping for is to see widespread adoption of new menu systems in other applications. By enormously increasing the complexity of windows GUIs it will be harder for open source to remain ‘good enough’ to compete with commercial software.
In summary, the radical new Ribbon GUI is not just about improving Office 2007 usability. It's also about giving users a reason to upgrade and differentiating their product from similar looking competitors.
The cynics will say that the new interface is actually worse, that Microsoft's top scientific brains on the Office team fought against the bozos in the marketing department who wanted the ribbon to drive sales, and the management sided with marketing wickedly inflicting an injustice on their customers in a state of full consciousness for the sake of profit.
The optimists will say Microsoft’s interface R&D has paid off with an innovative and exciting new GUI, and Microsoft is bravely and boldly backing it, and there is no conflict between truth/justice/science and profit.
If the Ribbon fails it very much calls into question Microsoft’s judgment. Feedback looks OK but Microsoft’s GUI innovation record is littered with failed attempts to jazz up and dumb down their products. For example, Office Assistant was a flop, Adaptive Menus, Web Folders and file extension hiding were all bad ideas, and experienced users immediately disable them.
But even beyond the question of Microsoft’s judgment, there is question of what impact failure would have. The danger is that Microsoft's management are so bad at self-knowledge and so emotionally committed that they just can't admit their failure, they can't climb down and roll back the ribbon, they just keep plodding on with it, and they start turning a blind eye to their failure, and that forces them to in a sense start losing interest in Office, and so the focus of the company moves to some speculative new business line, which they hype as the new future where the real gold lies, and their main business products decay. Ie they enter self-destruct cycle in which they never admit they have a problem, instead they diversify to find something they can be really passionate about and proud of, but by not fixing their old problems they don't learn so their new ventures never have a hope of success anyway, meanwhile their old ventures wither away gradually, and then one day an upstart with a whole new system vaporizes them.
In Conclusion: The Office 2007 Ribbon is an enormously important thing, vastly more important that people realise. Investors in Microsoft should be on tender hooks…
Suppose the cynics are right and the new interface is
actually worse, and a lot of
hate the ribbon and start complaining that all Microsoft are doing is messing
about making everyone's life worse to boost their sales. Ie in the same sort
of way that food companies make more money by chasing the weak and feckless
majority instead of the disciplined and educated few, so Microsoft is turning
away from the product excellence power users care about and pursuing the
majority with bags of colourful sweets. What are the political implications?
Realise that if the Ribbon damages productivity, Microsoft won't escape as easily as fashion food and entertainment companies, because their products actually have to work and do real things. In other words, whereas people can absorb themselves in childish and immoral liberal arts cultural forces for a very long time without realising how tragic their life has become, and only a handful of wise people at the top understand what is going on and get depressed, as you gradually destroy something people need to use to do some technical work with, you start making them mad at you quite quickly. For example, think about the difference between video games and spreadsheets. If the video games industry becomes corrupted the kids will go on getting worse and worse for a long time, enjoying Punch and Judy puppet shows when they are young and Clockwork Orange ultra-violence and ultra-porn as they grow older. But if the spreadsheet market becomes corrupted, it has more tendency to self-right because people find themselves becoming less productive, and understand the source of their loss of effectiveness, and the more advanced the user the faster he notices, so you get an elite led revolution against the status quo.
Now lawyers and regulators today are not good at ethical philosophy, but what we are now hypothetically considering is an enormous abuse of a monopoly position which any wise statesman would want to address, not to mention the damage it would do to the American economy given the vital importance of the PC industry. Thus Microsoft could find itself at the forefront of the crisis of neoliberalism, with regulators declaring thermo nuclear war upon it, insisting on a return to excellence and craft. This war would be much bigger than simply forcing Microsoft to give users a way to change browsers easily, what we are saying is that Microsoft as it stands is not fit and proper to run such an important part of the economy, and can not be allowed to control the design of its own products.
What we are talking about now is something very radical which I think people are going to start talking about in the future- namely the idea of reforming capitalism by taking away from corporations the power to design their own products, so they have no longer have creative freedom over product design or marketing or pricing, rather all that stuff belongs to government agencies, corporates just manufacture. I am not saying I necessarily agree with that, but I do think that the way things are going right now is completely un-sustainable.