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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 some ways it is hardest for people who know Office the best," Larson-Green said.

For most people, though, Microsoft believes its new interface will be far more palatable than today's way of doing things.

FAQ: Office 12

Click here to find out more about the update, including:
• What are the big changes?
• Will Office 12 require Windows Vista?
• When will it be available?
• What will it cost?

When editing in Word, for example, the ribbon presents only those choices that have directly to do with formatting content. And even then, the goal is not to present every possible option, but rather the couple dozen choices that represent the majority of the clicks people typically make.

"You use things like 'bold' a lot more often than you change your margins," Larson-Green said.

In addition to the ribbon, Microsoft is introducing a number of other design concepts to help people find more of the features buried inside the Office tools. One of the new ideas is the "galleries" concept, in which a range of more complex, frequently used editing choices are offered as clickable options. Those who don't find a template they want can always create a custom alternative using a dialog box.

Microsoft is also adding a "live preview" option that displays the impact of such choices prior to accepting a change.

Though pervasive, Microsoft's new design is not found across all of the Office applications. The new look is a central part of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access. It also shows up in Outlook when the user is composing e-mail or setting up a meeting, though the main window in that program remains largely similar in design to that in Office 2003.

Reaction among those outside Redmond was mixed, but many did applaud Microsoft for taking some risks with its venerable suite. Among those was Tim St. Clair, a 30-year-old Web developer from Australia who has been using the rival OpenOffice software program.

"Office 12 isn't just a set of new features, it's a ground-up rewrite of all the tools, with an emphasis on task-based functionality," St. Clair wrote on his Web site, adding later: "I like what I'm hearing and seeing with 12. Can't wait to get my hands on a beta."

Although the design changes are meant to increase efficiency, Gartenberg cautioned that there may be a period of lessened productivity as workers play around with all of the new options. Such was the case in the 1980s, he recalled, when he and others first had the ability to easily change fonts and sizes.

"I think everyone went through that period, none of which was terribly productive," Gartenberg said. "Exposure to more features does not necessarily indicate more productivity."

He also noted that the changes Microsoft is making to Office could have a broader impact on the Windows universe.

"It means that Office is not going to work like most Windows applications do," he said. "That's got to be disconcerting, if you are developing other Windows applications."

Still, the analyst noted that other developers may take a cue from Office as they, too, grapple with programs that are outgrowing a menu-driven design. "Certainly there are many other applications out there that could benefit from a face lift much like Office (is getting)," he said.

News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.