10 Key Elements of Office 12

It's been a busy few weeks for Microsoft's "Office 12" project. Having said nearly nothing at all about the next version of the office productivity suite and its accompanying servers for a year, Microsoft hasn't been able to stop talking about the suite for the last few weeks.

The highlights -- a complete overhaul of the user interface along with some new features, new licensing options, extended integration with the Microsoft Business Solutions products, an executive leadership shuffle, new workflow framework and new server elements.

New User Interface Philosophy

Microsoft showed off Office 12 publicly for the first time at the Professional Developers Conference, featuring user interface changes that the company describes as the "biggest, most visible change to the way the core Office applications work since the introduction of the toolbar in 1997."

The overhaul, which Microsoft calls a "results-oriented" UI, will initially cover Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint and some elements of Outlook. During a PDC demo, Microsoft corporate vice president Chris Capossela said Microsoft needed to rebuild the UI because customers are overwhelmed by the functions -- Word 2003, for example, has 1,500 commands. Nine times out of 10 when customers make feature requests, Capossela said, the feature is already in Office.

Menus and options are now supposed to be exposed only when they're needed, rather than all the time. "Only the more relevant features are visible, which also makes it easier for the user to understand what the product's capabilities are," Julie Larson-Green, group program manager for the Office User Experience, said in a Q&A on Microsoft's site.

Microsoft is also streamlining the UI to give users more room to work. Microsoft is trying to make fewer boxes and toolbars pop over areas where users are trying to work, and will do less automatic formatting.

New UI Features

Microsoft has a number of new elements in Office 12 designed to deliver on the new user interface philosophy.

The most important of the technologies is called "ribbons." "It's the only place you go to find the commands that are all about authoring -- creating the document, the presentation or the spreadsheet you're working on. There's no longer a stack of task panes and menus and toolbars to look through," says Larson-Green.

Microsoft rearranged some features in terms of "galleries." For example, instead of having to figure out how to shadow a graphic, users are now presented with several visual options in a gallery and can pick one that they like.

In addition to galleries, high-profile new features include "Super Tooltips," a revamped Help feature; and a "Quick Launch Toolbar," that lets users customize the UI by adding the commands they use most often.

No Back-Sliding

When Microsoft overhauled the Windows UI in Windows XP, the company gave curmudgeons a way back. Choosing the "Classic" view allowed users to keep the Windows UI they'd grown used to with Windows 95/98/ME/2000.

Office users will get no such option, according to Larson-Green. "We don't have a 'classic mode,'" she said flatly. While contending that customer surveys revealed little interest in a classic mode, Larson-Green also noted, "Faced with the same challenge of making all this new functionality available in the old UI, we couldn't keep the old command-oriented model and make it easier for users to find new features, so we decided to make a bolder move." Bottom line: The only way to keep the "classic" interface will be to hold on to your "classic" version of Office.

Beta on Tap

A senior Microsoft executive committed to delivering a beta in a couple of months. In a PDC keynote about Office 12, vice president for Office Steven Sinofsky promised PDC attendees that they'd got the code when it comes in a few months. Microsoft's public plans call for general availability of Office 12 around the same time as Windows Vista ships in late 2006.

Windows Workflow Foundation

The user interface enhancements are goodies for end users. Developers are getting some attention too. After showing off the UI for the first time at the PDC, Microsoft unveiled the Windows Workflow Foundation. Described as a workflow engine, programming model and set of tools for developers, the Windows Workflow Foundation tools are supposed to help developers rapidly build workflow-enabled applications.

While Microsoft positions Windows Workflow Foundation right up there with the Windows Presentation Foundation and the Windows Communication Foundation in WinFX, Office 12 applications are a major focus.

Workflow capabilities will be integrated inside Office system applications to bring together document management, records management and Web content management in an effort to enable enterprise content management (ECM).

Forms Server

One of the big rumors around Office 12 has been speculation about the existence of some new servers to support various Office scenarios. Sinofsky confirmed that one such server, or at least a set of server-side services, is in the works.

He referred to it as a forms server, and it acts as an InfoPath server. InfoPath is Microsoft's relatively new client software for creating XML-based forms. "The biggest piece of feedback we received regarding InfoPath was, hey, we really need a way to create these forms in this same rich environment as InfoPath, but make them available through Web browsers, as well as through the rich client InfoPath technology," Sinofsky said in his PDC keynote.

"The way you do that now is you just say I'd like these forms to be compatible with the forms server, which is a server element of the Office "12" platform," Sinofsky said.

Fine-Tuned SharePoint

The shift from Office to the Office System around the Office 2003 launch brought several servers into the fold. The biggest of them, aside from Exchange which isn't technically in the Office System, is SharePoint Portal Server. Microsoft is working on several improvements to the portal product.

A major focus is improving the enterprise search capability of the portal, Sinofsky said. One improvement is the addition of "did you mean?" to results in cases where a search term might have been misspelled or is otherwise slightly off in a way that the portal can catch through spell checking and linguistics algorithms. Another area Microsoft is working on for the next release is rich organizational searching through integration with Active Directory. Searching for people in an organization can bring up organizational charts, e-mail distribution lists and presence information, Sinofsky said.

The Office team also came up with a way to put Excel data on a server by using SharePoint Portal Server Web parts. "For years, people have tried to figure out, how can we have the functionality of data binding, pivot tables and rich data connectivity in that great view of Excel, but still have a rich browser interface present that data," Sinofsky said in a demo. "This Web part here is actually an Excel functionality rendered as HTML from the server. The way that you create one of these in Office "12" is, you create a spreadsheet in Excel, connect it to data and then just publish that out to SharePoint. ... When you hit the URL, instead of opening up in Excel, you actually get the full access of Excel's data binding, reporting, display and pivot tables and analysis -- all displayed straight through in HTML interface right here in a Web part."

Meanwhile, SharePoint Services for team collaboration, currently delivered as an free update to Windows Server 2003, will support blogs and wikis for team collaboration in Office 12, Sinofsky said.

Jeff in Charge

There was a whole lot of shuffling going on inside Microsoft last week in a major corporate realignment. The key executive in charge of the Office business stayed the same.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer changed Microsoft's organization from seven business divisions to three. The new divisions are Microsoft Platform Products and Services Division; the Microsoft Business Division; and Microsoft Entertainment & Devices Division.

Jeff Raikes, the group vice president for the Information Worker Business (read Microsoft's hugely profitable Office business), is now the president of the Microsoft Business Division. Ballmer basically added all the ERP and CRM products from Microsoft Business Solutions to Raikes' Office management duties. The moves don't add much to Raikes' bottom line. He goes from managing an Information Worker unit that brought in $11 billion in revenues in Microsoft's fiscal 2005 to a Microsoft Business Solutions unit that would have brought in $11.8 billion had Information Worker and Microsoft Business Solutions been combined over the same period.

MBS/Dynamics Integration

The unification of the Information Worker and Microsoft Business Solutions divisions under one division comes at the same time that Microsoft has public plans to make the MBS ERP and CRM products look more like Office. A wave of MBS products, renamed "Dynamics," coming out next year will mark the first stage in the transformation, Microsoft says. Having the products in the same division as Office in the year that the division is working furiously on Office 12 should help accelerate that integration.

Deployment Help

Microsoft also unveiled a raft of changes to the Software Assurance component of volume licensing this month. Two of the major new benefits offer assistance with Office desktop deployment planning. Desktop Deployment Planning Services are designed to assist in planning deployment of desktop software such as Windows and Microsoft Office. The planning services will be delivered by Microsoft partners and measured in engagement days. Information Worker Desktop Services is a smaller-scale version of desktop deployment planning services for Microsoft Open Value customers. These customers can convert two training vouchers for the one-day Information Worker Business Value Discovery service or convert four vouchers for the two-day Information Worker Architectural Design Session.

With the new benefits starting in March, they will come just in time for early adopter customers planning their Office 12 rollouts.