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At a gala event introducing Windows Vista and Office 2007 in January, Microsoft called it the most significant product launch in the company’s history – the first time it debuted new versions of its two flagship offerings at the same time. Mostly, of course, it was pure hype.
Vista has yet to prove it can solve the most pressing problems that beset its predecessor, Windows XP – namely security and stability. Office 2007, while it contains some startling visual changes and may provide real benefit to some people, is a mixed blessing for anyone heavily invested in previous versions.
Microsoft’s boast with Word 2007 is that it “helps you create great-looking documents more quickly and more easily than ever before.” The main way it does this is by radically revamping the user interface, replacing menus and toolbars with a “ribbon” and panels (Microsoft calls them tabs) that stretch across the screen and graphically depict groups of functions. The ribbon interface appears in all major Office modules.
Microsoft has also created a new file format for Word 2007, Word XML. The new format dramatically reduces file sizes and, because it conforms to XML standards, makes it easier to integrate Word files with other information systems and external data sources. It cannot, however, be read by earlier versions of Word.
By far the most significant change is the user interface. Microsoft says it is intended to make more program functions visible to customers so they can: a) find the ones they already know more quickly and easily, and b) see previously hidden features and begin to use new ones, thereby gaining further productivity benefits.
Insiders mention another reason. The program had become so feature-laden that drop down text menus would be too long to display in their entirety on some computer screens.
It’s not just the cost in lost productivity while learning a new interface. If you’ve extensively customized Word in previous versions – as we had – those customizations go out the window (so to speak), though you can recover some of them. Macros – little programs you can write within Word to quickly perform complex or repetitive tasks – also disappear in the immediate aftermath of upgrading to Windows 2007. Again, you can recover them with a little effort, but many of them will not work if they involve aspects of the interface that have changed.
The worst of it, for people who are very familiar with and who rely upon Word, is that Word 2007 is overall less customizable than previous versions. A simple example: you cannot change the icons on toolbar or tab buttons.
For casual dabblers, though, who haven’t done much customization, don’t write Word macros and don’t intend to start, these problems are of little concern. Microsoft overhauled the user interface for them – the vast majority. Others can simply choose not to upgrade, or spend the time and effort on recovering or recreating customizations and macros, to the extent possible.
Let’s take the new features one at a time.
An all-new item, Prepare – i.e. prepare documents for distribution – gives access to options such as Properties, Inspect Document (for hidden metadata), Encrypt Document and Add a Digital Signature (another new feature).
The Mini Toolbar, also referred to as the Quick Access Toolbar, extends along the title bar at the very top of the screen, but can optionally be moved to below the ribbon. In the default configuration, it displays three unlabeled icon buttons: Save, Undo and Redo. The icon buttons are slightly smaller, but otherwise this toolbar looks and works like toolbars in past versions.
You can customize the Quick Access Toolbar – using the Word Options/Customize dialog – to display any command. This toolbar is the only one of its kind, however. And adding command icons to it is the only substantive customization that you can do. Word 2003 included many specialized toolbars with thematically grouped buttons – e.g. Drawing, E-mail, Web, Mail Merge – which you could choose to display or not, and could freely customize. You could also create entirely new custom toolbars. This is all gone in Word 2007.
It’s not that they don’t give you a quick visual grasp of what’s available. And it’s not that the features and functions aren’t well organized into logical groupings. It’s just that it’s so radically different. It will take most people days at least before they begin to reap the supposed benefits of easier and faster operation. In the meantime, they’ll be groping to find features.
Think of the ribbon panels as multi-layer toolbars. In each one, you’ll see a few or several groupings of labeled buttons, with a title identifying the group at the bottom. Groupings in the Home panel, for example, include Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, Styles and Editing. The Font grouping includes a font selector drop-down list and 13 other buttons or objects related to font control.
Other top-line items and panel groupings:
Insert (Pages, Tables, Illustrations, Links, Header & Footer, Text and Symbols)
Page Layout (Themes, Page Setup, Page Background, Paragraph and Arrange)
References (Table of Contents, Footnotes, Citations & Bibliography, Captions, Index, Table of Authorities)
Mailings (Create, Start Mail Merge, Write & Insert Fields, Preview Results, Finish)
Review (Proofing, Comments, Tracking, Changes, Compare, Protect)
View (Document Views, Show/Hide, Zoom, Window, Macros)
If you’ve invested heavily in writing macros and customizing your current version of Word, think long and hard about whether Word 2007’s new features and the possible productivity benefits from a more user-friendly interface are worth the pain of migration. On the other hand, you will eventually have to convert because at some point Microsoft will stop supporting earlier versions.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.
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