Microsoft Unveils New Office UI But Server Packaging TBD

As expected,

Without uttering the "r word," Chris Capossela, vice president of Microsoft's Information Worker group offered what he called the first public showing of the Vista Windows client and Office 12 running together.

Using a "post beta 1" build of the Vista client, Capossela showed how when a user "hovers" over the Vista task bar, it will preview each opened Window whether it's a Word document or a video. The demo was highlighted at the opening day of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles.

The Alt-tab command is now a flip feature to launch a "slide show" during which the thumbnail views roll across the screen. There is also a command to pull up a 3D view of the thumbnails. All of this will enable developers to take full advantage of the new "Aero" desktop, Capossela said.

The Quick Search box is nearly everywhere including the Start Menu. Through File View users can also switch on a "Detail View" to see the meta data of a given file.

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The Vista Sidebar on the right side of the screen displays links to real-time data—RSS feeds, etc. Developers can build "Gadgets" for any given task and put them on that sidebar for easy access. Many in the PDC crowd noted how similar Gadgets are to the Widgets enabled by Apple Computer's latest operating system. Some also noted that Microsoft has not talked up its planned Sidebar much lately but that the introduction of Google's Sidebar may have spurred renewed public disclosure.

When running atop Vista, Office 12 will utilize Vista's "File Open" dialogue box and take advantage of other Vista UI perks. But it will also bring its own simplified navigation to the fore on Windows XP, and possibly Windows 2000, Capossela told CRN in an interview after his Tuesday morning keynote.

"[With] traditional toolbars, there's no more room to go as apps get more sophisticated," Capossela told CRN. "The traditional refrain from users is that they use 5 percent or whatever percent of Excel or Word. We want to focus on innovating the UI to show how the world has changed."

Much of the change was simply made to "surface" features that already exist in Office--to make document reformatting in Word easier, for example. "You can do all that now, insert text boxes, but it's a pain. It takes a bunch of clicking," he noted.

But there are also a bunch of net new features. For example, if Excel lists a range of numbers, individual cells can now be easily color-coded to show where they lie on the high-, low-, medium range of the spectrum, he said. Or, the number in each cell can overlay a bar code depiction of that number. Half of a box labelled 50 percent, would be filled in, for example.

He demonstrated an add-in from OSI Software updated for use in Office's new interface. The performance monitoring software can now take advantage of that color coding. Ironically, the demonstrated application showed electrical power consumption—a day after Los Angeles was slammed with wide ranging power outages.

The keynote audience applauded the Sidebar and a new Excel feature that carries row- and column-headers along as the user scrolls around the spreadsheet.

Another crowd favorite was a hover-over feature in IE 7's new tabbed browser. "Once the tabs are open, a new QuickTabs feature, with a single click on the mouse, opens a slide view of all tabs," Capossela said.

In tabbed browsing, Microsoft is playing catch up with Firefox/Mozilla, which many say has been more innovative than Microsoft since it gained browser market share dominance.

While techies may laud new Office/Vista perks, the risk is that the benefits may only be obvious to a small segment of the market, some said.

The company has to "be careful that that buyers don't perceive of these Office 12 improvements as little more than bells and whistles or window dressing. They will want to see a real productivity return from their investments," said Dana Gardner, principal analyst at InterArbor Solutions, Gilford, N.H.

Capossela acknowledged that Office 12 was originally to have been a Longhorn product but as the operating system slipped, his team had to adjust to hit its own dates. The Windows team acknowledged that as well. The Office group only takes on the dependencies it has to, but once the operating system is shipping, they take every advantage of it, said Greg Sullivan, group product manager of the Windows Client Division.

Capossela, who has long said the Office group religiously makes its 36- to 48-month update cycle, said target platform decisions depend on how far along the Windows group is in their development cycle. Windows XP will be the core operating system for Office 12 which will also take advantage of many Vista perks. The jury is still out on Windows 2000 support, he said.

Microsoft Office Senior Vice President Steven Sinofsky will talk more about Office servers on Wednesday, but pricing, licensing and packaging for an array of planned Office-labeled server capabilities are all still under discussion, Capossela said.

There may or may not be discrete InfoPath Forms, Excel or other servers or some kind of mega-server that lets customers pay for the capabilities they turn on, Capossela confirmed.

Also to be determined is whether or not Groove Virtual Office, slated for release as its own SKU in the Office 12 wave next year, will also become part of an Office suite perhaps as part of a promised "Premium" Edition.

Capossela said the Vista/Office 12 wave will pose huge opportunities for an array of hardware, software, VAR and integration partners.

ISVs and VARs "can build vertical solutions atop the new user interface and then there is a huge partner opportunity based on connecting Office to line-of-business applications. SharePoint has a big role there, and Web services."

"There has not been this big an opportunity since [Windows/Office] 95," Capossela said. "Technically, these products are far bigger than 95. Windows 95/Office 95 brought long file names and 32-bit support, but compared to Office 12, it was nothing. The new server infrastructure, XML, InfoPath investments ... it's stunning how much bigger and bolder this is."

For a look at the new UI, go to this Microsoft Web site.