Office 12 Gets New Look

Specifically, Microsoft is working on a "ribbon" concept in which the user would get a different strip or ribbon of icons depending on the task at hand—whether it's a simple note, a fancy document, a graphical presentation, multimedia or a spreadsheet, said a source familiar with the plans. That ribbon would expose only the tools relevant to the current job.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates alluded to this work, without using the "R word," at the company's CEO Summit in May. To ease the creation of professional-looking documents, he said: "We're making some changes in our user interface in Office to expose, make it easy to find the functionality, make it far more visual, [so] that you get all the power that's there in the tool."

Microsoft Group Product Manager Dan Leach said the Redmond, Wash.-based company is "thinking about how to make features and functionality more discoverable in the next wave of Office products." He said they would take cues from the current Outlook 2003's "Quick Flags," search folders and three-column view but cautioned it is too early to talk about specific changes.

Office ribbons would be another attack on the problem of icon abuse. Most stats state that users actually use less than 20 percent—and probably less than 10 percent—of the functions they have at their disposal. That leads to a very basic question: What's the point of packing new features into a product if they never see the light of day?

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And what's the point of upgrading to the next Office if you don't even use a fraction of your current Office 2003 or Office XP or Office 2000? Clearly, Microsoft needs to solve that conundrum.

Another source said the ribbon interface is "a nice UI solution because they're running out of real estate with all their task panes and menu layers."

This source was surprised that, aside from a few focus groups and NDA briefings, Microsoft has not been more forthcoming about Office 12 specifics.

"Microsoft has a lot of Enterprise Agreements up for renewal, and Office is the reason most people renew. If you're looking into renewing for three years, they need to sell this thing now," he said.