Office 12 makeover takes on 'feature creep'

Microsoft's radical revamp could wake people up to overlooked features but risks alienating longtime users. Images: Office's makeover FAQ: Looking into Office 12

For years, Microsoft has been trying to add features to Office without them getting in the way of people who already know their way around the software.

Unfortunately, the company was a little too successful at making its innovations unobtrusive. In user testing, Microsoft found that nine out of every 10 features that customers wanted to see added to Office were already in the program.

"They simply don't know it's there," Chris Capossela, a Microsoft vice president, told a developer crowd last week. "It's just too hard to find it."

Indeed, Office has become a case study for feature creep--the phenomenon in which a simple technology becomes complicated and unmanageable through the addition of new features. Office, which once had 100 commands neatly organized into menus, ballooned to contain some 1,500 commands located in scores of menus, toolbars and dialog boxes.

Having sensed that the software has reached the limits of functionality, Microsoft has been preparing its most radical overhaul ever for Word, Excel and friends. With Office 12, due next year, the company plans to do away with a system that depends on people remembering which series of menus lead to a particular command. Instead, users will see a "ribbon" of different commands above their document, with the options changing depending on the task. Microsoft previewed the new look for Office at last week's Professional Developer Conference in Los Angeles.

The move could help Microsoft in its perennial quest to come up with enough reasons to prompt current Office users to upgrade, and might also stem some defections to rivals, such as OpenOffice. At the same time, it risks alienating some loyalists, as well as prompting some businesses to question the cost of retraining those accustomed to the current Office.

The stakes are high: Office has long been one of the company's most profitable products. Microsoft's Information Worker unit, which includes Office and related tools, generated more than $11 billion in revenue--more than one quarter of Microsoft's total revenue in fiscal year 2005, according to the company.

But the growth in revenue has slowed as some customers delay upgrading to new versions, and others switch to "good enough" Office alternatives.

Microsoft executives say they understand the risk.

"There will be some shock among users," Chairman Bill Gates said in an interview last week. However, Gates predicted people will quickly adjust to the new look and appreciate the revamped features.

click to view photos of Office 12

Julie Larson-Green, the Microsoft group program manager who headed up the new design for Office, predicted that the time it takes to re-learn things won't be extensive.

"We think it's somewhere between two days to two weeks, depending on your comfort level," she said.

But not everyone will give Office 12 that much of a chance, acknowledges Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft senior vice president in charge of Office. He likens it to a magazine that goes through a major redesign, knowing that some people will cancel their subscription.

"Some very small percentage of people are going to react overwhelmingly negative," Sinofsky said in an interview. "I'm prepared for that."

About time
Despite the risk, Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg said some sort of overhaul was long overdue.

"It has gotten to a point where the product is very unwieldy," he said.

But, he warned, Microsoft may still face a tough sell. "Microsoft has to convince (corporate customers) not only that the new version is better, but also that there is not a significant amount of retraining that is going to be required for users."

Somewhat ironically, it may be toughest to switch for the power users who have suffered to learn many of the 1,500 current commands. "In

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