In-Depth

Changes for Better or Worse

The updated interface and raft of new features in Office 2007 will eventually make users more productive, but getting to that point is a struggle.

Microsoft has upgraded its flagship office productivity suite for the first time in more than four years. While it poured a plethora of new features into Office 2007 and completely revamped the interface, so far readers have a love/hate relationship with the new Office.

"I think those starting out with Office 2007 are going to love it, but if you grew up with Office -- as probably 95 percent of the world did -- you'll absolutely hate it at first," says Nancy O'Brien, a software server engineer at Aurora Health Care in Milwaukee. "It's hard to get used to. I'm still finding some things difficult to do, and I've been using it since they released the beta, which is almost a year now."

Change can be hard to swallow, even when it's change for the better. However, readers who have worked through the changes and gotten accustomed to the new look and the new features say they would never go back to a previous version. "Once you accept the change and get used to it, then you absolutely love it," says Sam Westfall, desktop systems manager at Abacus Direct LLC, a marketing company in Lafayette, Colo.

Westfall has already moved 10 of the 360 people in his group to Office 2007. "One of the users we upgraded [to 2007] had a problem. We moved him back to Office 2003 and he screamed and complained. Once you get used to it, it's actually more user-friendly. It's easier to use and it offers better productivity."

Mike Thomas, Director for Alliance Marketing, Channel Development, Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software Inc.

Can't Get There from Here
The primary reason for the love/hate relationship is that Microsoft has replaced the familiar toolbars and menus from earlier versions of Office with what it calls the "Ribbon" interface. The ribbon is a horizontal strip across the top of the screen populated with tabs and icons grouped by function. It's the predominant interface element for the entire suite -- including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and the others. The idea is to have every function accessible within one or two clicks. Overall, readers say that's exactly how it works.

"I want to use what I need when I need it. The ribbon is set up in such a way that it's very intuitive," says Brian Conlin, a partner account manager at Greythorn Inc., an IT recruiter in Bellevue, Wash. "The ribbon seems to have everything I need right there. I don't have to hunt. It makes me more efficient and productive because of how it's set up."

That is, until there's something you need and it's not in an intuitive place. "For somebody who's well-versed in Office, it can be frustrating to look for functionality that was in an obvious place before," says Mike Thomas, director for alliance marketing, channel development at Pitney Bowes Group 1 Software Inc. in Lanham, Md.

Thomas has learned to take advantage of the suite's Quick Bar functionality, which lets him add customized functions to a spot just above the ribbon. "A good example is Switch Windows," he says. "You used to be able to go to Window, which was on the main menu bar, and then choose Switch Windows to work on multiple documents and go from one to the other." In Office 2007, however, Switch Windows is under the View tab. Thomas admits this makes sense, but it was frustratingly difficult to find at first.

Expert Office users say the ribbon has some key features that make adapting to the changes well worth it, especially the new preview function. When users are in Word, for example, they can hover their mouse pointer over the Styles menu and it automatically provides a preview of their selected text in different styles. "I'm thrilled with that," O'Brien says. "Instead of having to look in that little menu bar, drop it down and not know what the styles there were, now I can see the styles and how they'll appear."

The same preview capability comes in handy within Outlook, as well. "It lets you hover over attachments to get a little thumbnail preview," says Conlin. "That's a really great feature."

The preview function can also be used for themes. "I like the ability to preview a theme or color without having to actually make the change," Thomas says. "Although I find that to be a little frustrating because the theme drop down menu bar covers up a lot of what you see. It has a little refinement to go through, but in general, it's nice."

XML as Well
A key feature of Office 2007 is its integrated support for XML, which is the default file format for all the applications. This move is designed to ease integration with other applications -- both Office and non-Office.

"From a developer standpoint, the XML support is great," says Robert Harvey, IT applications manager for distributed applications at UsXpress Inc. in Chattanooga, Tenn. "We're beginning to develop applications that will go against the Office 2007 server and the XML support makes that easier. It integrates right into SharePoint document controls. It also makes it easier to export the data into other platforms, such as the AS/400, which we need to do."

He says the XML files are also smaller than traditional .DOC or .XLS files. "That's a real benefit, especially when you're e-mailing large spreadsheets across the network," Harvey says.

Thomas agrees the file sizes are "dramatically smaller." He has worked with some that are 25 percent to 50 percent smaller in 2007 than in 2003.

The one problem with the new file type is that 2007 documents and files are not backward-compatible with previous versions of Office. "That's my biggest frustration right now because the save defaults to the 2007 version," Conlin says. "Nobody else in my office uses 2007, so I have to take the extra step of doing a save-as so the formats are correct."

Brian Conlin, Partner Account Manager, Greythorn Inc.Thomas says the main problem is that documents lose functionality. "Because of the incompatibility between the two versions, it's hard to share documents with other people who aren't on 2007. A lot of that functionality goes away or becomes unchangeable," he says. "For example, if you use graphics in PowerPoint 2007 and you want to share those, it will save them in 2003 format, but it saves them in a .JPG format, which means the person using 2003 can see them but they can't modify them."

Help on the Way
Thomas says using the new Help features within 2007 to ferret out new or old features isn't very helpful. "Help seems a lot more frustrating because it just doesn't get you to the answer you need," he says. "I'll do a search for something I think is obvious, and the help menu comes back with a Google-like listing of topics, and none of them are even close to what I need."

Conlin agrees. "I'm not a fan of the Help in Office 2007," he says. "It goes to the Web and does a search and comes back with what it says is pertinent -- but it's usually not."

It would be better if Microsoft provided training aimed at users who are experienced users, readers say. "Microsoft has no good power-user training for Office 2007," says Thomas. "It's all aimed at using the ribbon bar and at users who've never used Office before. That's not the training people want. They know Office already. They just want to know how to get their job done in this new environment." He says that's a deficiency on the Microsoft Web site, as well as currently available Office 2007 books.

Selective Search
The new integrated search is a key feature of Office 2007. "The more I use it, the more I like it," Conlin says. "Office 2007 lets you search for things from within the applications. If I can't find something, I can just type a couple of words and find it, whether it's an e-mail, a Word doc or an Excel file."

O'Brien agrees that the search is much improved. "The search is beautiful," she says. She especially likes using it in conjunction with the new 2007 wizards. "When people go to the New menu and they don't see what they want, they can just type in 'I want a new template for a fax cover sheet,' and it will take them to Microsoft's Web site. Then they can choose one they like. It will download it, save it for them, and it will always be available later."

She says this is a nice change from previous versions. "Before, templates came with the package and users had to know to install them in a specific location," she says. "Now, it's a lot easier to search for choices and to use them."

A Long Slow Embrace
Conlin says that even with the difficulty finding features and getting used to the new interface, he'll continue using the new Office even after his beta expires. "I don't mind paying for software I think is efficient and will help make me more productive, and this does," he says.

Microsoft Office 2007

However, he may still wait to make an official move. "There are some compelling reasons to make the switch, but for our office and the type of work we do, I don't think there's enough there to get us to move. It will be a year or two before our office seriously considers it."

Once more organizations move to Office 2007 and clear such hurdles as learning the new interface and file format compatibility, then, readers say, the productivity gains will be noticeable. "I think the accessibility and the improvement in productivity would offset the learning curve, but it would probably take at least 90 days before that would happen," Thomas says. "There will be some pain, but it will be worth it."

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