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Searching for ways to improve Office

Microsoft offers up an alternative to the Ribbon interface: just search for the command you want. The add-on is the first product from a new Office Labs group.

For those who have trouble finding their old commands in Office's new Ribbon interface, Microsoft has a new option: search for it.

On Monday, the company is releasing an Office add-on called Search Commands that lets users type the function they are looking to do. After months of testing it internally, Microsoft is ready to give the public a chance to try it out. But the new tool won't be found on Microsoft's main Web site.

Chris Pratley, who helped lead the development of Microsoft's OneNote, now leads the Office Labs effort. Microsoft

Rather, it will be available via a new effort, dubbed Office Labs. Spearheaded by Microsoft veteran Chris Pratley, Office Labs is Microsoft's attempt to test out productivity ideas that may--or may not--be ready for prime time.

In an interview, Pratley said Office Labs is designed to try out anything from just a feature to an entire new product concept. The goal is to get feedback early on, before deciding where to put the big development dollars.

"It's kind of expensive to make an entire product and then put it out there and see if it's any good," he said. Pratley knows firsthand. He was among those who helped create the Office OneNote application earlier this decade after spending the 1990s working on Word and Excel.

Office Labs is not the first time Microsoft has tried to create a sandbox for new ideas. It already has its "Live Labs," which has served as an incubator for the online services business.

In contrast to the masses of developers who work on Office itself, Pratley leads a team of about 60 designers and developers. On Monday, Microsoft is going public with two of the group's projects--Search Commands and Community Clips, which is basically an attempt to create a YouTube for help videos.

A warning on the Office Labs Web site
A note on the Office Labs Web site warns that usage of the products downloaded from the site will be tracked. Microsoft

Search Commands, also known by the code name "Scout," has been popular inside Redmond for some time. With Office Labs, Microsoft will get to see if the searching metaphor is a hit with average users.

Just because something seems like a good idea, doesn't mean users will jump on it. Pratley notes that in the 1990s, Microsoft experimented with--but never released--a Web browser-like approach to navigating for commands, offering hyperlinks to different dialog boxes.

In that approach, though, commands didn't have a fixed home, but instead could be accessed in any number of ways. That uncertainty didn't sit well with users.

"It was pretty clear people were uncomfortable not knowing where things were," Pratley said.

With Search Commands, though, the commands still have a home--the user just doesn't have to remember where that is. Microsoft is still weighing an option that lets users see where the command they are searching for "really lives" as well as a way to add it to their main toolbar for easy access.

Office Labs is working on about 10 or so ideas, Pratley said, but the remainder are either in the planning stages or only being tested internally.

What's up in Microsoft's Office Labs

For the ones that do see light of day, he said the goal is to get as much feedback as possible. In that vein, Microsoft tells users that it will be collecting information on how they use the Office Labs code. So those who don't like being tracked might want to forgo using their offerings.

"We're trying to be really upfront about the fact that we are doing that (tracking), and that (getting the feedback) is the only reason these things are available," Pratley said.

The goal, he said, is to figure out which ideas are actually worth pursuing.

"A lot of times that means that we won't end up coding them into a product because they weren't as good as we thought," he said.