Among the extreme changes planned for the next version of Microsoft Office, the graphical Ribbon of features topping the layouts of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access is the most obvious. By dropping Office's traditional, text-only drop-down menus, Microsoft hoped that the Ribbon's tabbed layout and graphical icons would make it easier for users to find features. But beta testers complained that the Ribbon hogged the screen, so Microsoft is snipping its size.
The Ribbon isn't disappearing, however. In our beta tests of Office 2007, the Ribbon's size didn't bug us as much as its constant shape-shifting did. Designed to anticipate your next move, the dynamic Ribbon shows different tools based on your task at hand. You can't see how to tweak an image, for example, until you click it. On the other hand, the Ribbon did make it easier to find otherwise-buried functions, cutting down on mouse clicks. People who are new to Office (troglodytes? grammar schoolers?) probably will have fewer problems adjusting to the new interface than will people who have finally gotten used to, say, looking for Comments within Word 2003's Insert menu rather than under Tools. Luckily, if you get lost, most keyboard shortcuts will stay the same.
You can find our thorough coverage of the Microsoft Word 2007 beta 2, Excel 2007 beta 2, Outlook 2007 beta 2, and PowerPoint 2007 beta 2. You can judge the big Ribbon for yourself by test-driving beta versions of Office 2007 (online or download versions) available at office.microsoft.com. To see more of what Microsoft has in store for next year, you can check out our ongoing coverage of the radical renovation of Vista, the next Windows operating system., which includes slide shows of