Most people have had experience of, or currently use Microsoft Office, either at work or home, but I would think most people would find it hard to spot the differences between Office 2000, XP, and 2003. Apart from updated aesthetics on the latter, not much has changed through the generations, certainly not enough to warrant continuous upgrades. So what will the next Microsoft Office, codenamed Office “12, be like, and should we be exited as home and business users?

Lets look at some of the key features, for a start Office has its usual makeover, which whilst as you expect looks very nice, actually comes with some changes to the way in which you can use the menu. Rather than having all the options immediately presented to you via a set of menus and toolbars, two options, the first of which is the usual file menu, redesigned from the current menus, for example the “command tabs for MS Word are; writing, inserting, page layout, working with references, doing mailings, and reviewing documents.

The second interface, replacing toolbars, are “contextual command tabs. As the name implies change in accordance with the particular type of editing you are using, and have a larger representation than the current toolbars. Rather than current system, where editing a table would open the table toolbar, editing a table would remove all the other options which are irrelevant to your task, and leave only easy to use options. For example the main options for page layout have the standard images and text clearly presented, for Size, Margins, Orientation and Columns, whilst Breaks, Numbers and Hyphenation are only represented textually, in a smaller font size. The submenus for the main options also give further, immediate information, for example margins may give four options Normal, Narrow, Wide and Mirrored, but also give measurements that will be used along side.

Microsoft hope that they can continue to add features to Office programs, by using contextual menus and continue to make it easier for users to take advantage of them. Their overriding design goal for the new UI is to deliver a user interface that enables users to be more successful in finding and using the advanced features of Microsoft Office.

Another change is the formal that, by default, the next Microsoft Office will use to save documents, based on XML-based formats. The new file formats will be both compact and robust, that enable better integration between documents and back-end systems. It will be an open, royalty-free file format specification that maximizes interoperability in a varied environment, and enables any technology provider to integrate Microsoft Office documents into their solutions. The XML format uses ZIP technologies that compress the document up to 75%, saving on bandwidth and storage.

Microsoft, have also hope to redefine workflow with “Windows Workflow Foundation a workflow engine, programming model and set of tools for developers to rapidly build workflow-enabled applications. “Today, workflow solutions are ad hoc, complex and limited in use because developers must implement their own workflow engines, said Eric Rudder, senior vice president of Servers and Tools at Microsoft. “Windows Workflow Foundation makes workflow an integral Windows platform capability, promising to dramatically increase the availability and simplicity of workflow-enabled applications. It will provide out-of-the-box support for common workflow solutions such as document creation and management, content archival, records management, policy-based retention, and Web content management. Solutions built using Microsoft Office ECM will be able to effectively harness the information that flows through companies, regardless of where the content resides or in what format it appears.

During a Developers conference, Gates said, “This is the most significant release of Microsoft Office since Office 95, Office ‘12’ has all the essential ingredients to deliver an incredible productivity boost for millions of people around the world. But that’s only half the story. The expansion of server and developer capabilities in Office ‘12’ are a great illustration of what is possible with today’s platform. These improvements will help spur greater group and organizational productivity and expand the opportunities for developers.

So should we be exited, personally, I am. For the average home or business user, this provides functionality at their finger tips. There is no reason to provide users with complex powerful software, that they are unable to use. The screen shots I have seen, intuitively provide applicable options to the task at hand, and should ensure that users are able add creative content, above the usual documents / presentations that are common place. For the complex users, I think this will also help, often do I think about doing something in Office that I know how to do, but lose the command tools in the myriad of options available, and should, therefore, add efficiency at all levels. I am interested to learn more about any improvement in the XML format against the current XML option available, smaller files would be useful when transferred over low-bandwidth areas of the work place, especially for normally larger documents, such as Presentations. Overall though, I wonder how much everyday functionality has been added, and whether it will make an upgrade worthwhile.

My apologies for the tardiness in elevating this to a 'featured item'.

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