Microsoft Office 12 (beta 1)

• See the Office 12 slide show

Overview: Before the final product is expected to hit the shelves late next year, this initial beta version of Microsoft Office 12 reveals radical interface changes that recall the overly ambitious Microsoft Office 97 update. The changes apply to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, as Redmond intends to streamline your work flow, particularly for business users. The familiar File and Edit drop-down menus will disappear to make way for functions grouped within a ribbon atop each window. This banner's task-specific tabs attempt to anticipate and surface the functions you need according to your ongoing work. Office 12's apps get a new interface, as well as a fresh graphics engine, similar to that promised in Windows Vista. Visual thumbnail galleries of ready-made layouts suggest formatting options, and templates of your live document are available automatically.

See the impending changes here:

To package the new features, the new default developer-friendly, XML-based file formats promise to be as much as 70 percent smaller than those in Office 2003. Microsoft will tack an X onto the tail of each document extension; DOC files from Word 12 will become DOCX; XLS files within Excel 12 will become XLSX, and so on. The older DOC, XLS, and other formats will remain Save As options. Yet unlike previous versions of Office, which irretrievably mangle data when files become corrupted, Office 12 will separate documents' contents from formatting to allow emergency recovery. Office 12 also hopes to better serve business customers with mobile connectivity and sharing of data via company servers.

Upside: We appreciate the ability of the apps within Microsoft Office 12 (beta 1) to display live previews of formatting changes, so you'll never have to guess again what a font looks like. This system promises many ease-of-use interface tweaks, such as a slider bar in the bottom of each window for zooming in and out of page views. We hope that tabbed toolbar browsing will make navigating through tasks and documents easier and eliminate the guesswork, as it attempts to display the tools you need, such as visual galleries of attributes and suggested layouts. To spare you from annoying interruptions, Microsoft hammered the nail in the coffin of the dorky paper-clip cartoon, Clippy. Right-clicking a mouse will reveal the same task-specific menu choices as offered in the masthead banner. Developers will get the freedom to add their own tabs, items to tabs, and gallery items to Office 12; and companies can build their own toolbars from scratch, if needed. Old, familiar add-ins will also work in the new Office. Users of previous versions of Office will like that Office 12 files are backward compatible through Office 97.

Downside: In the past, Microsoft has sabotaged itself by unrolling too many new features to Office too fast. We're keeping a lookout for problems; after all, Office 12 was in its storyboard stages just a few months ago. If you've spent the past two years mastering Office 2003, prepare for a steep learning curve. The Alt keyboard shortcuts will change; luckily, shortcuts using the Ctrl button will stay the same. While the more visual, tabbed layout may reduce mouse clicks, it eats up more screen real estate and RAM. We're also wary of Office 12's goal to make the ribbon respond to the tasks you're working on. What if, say, options for text formatting that you want to make are hidden because you've clicked on a graphic? Unanticipated consequences could make the ribbon less intuitive than the traditional layout of Office 2003. The new graphics muscle makes icons and charts appear less flat, but our jaws didn't drop at first sight.

We like that Microsoft won't force users to buy the latest, greatest PCs. Office 12 will require Windows XP SP1 or 2003 and will require a minimum of 256MB of RAM and a 512MHz processor. However, we anticipate that you may want an even more powerful system to multitask with the graphics-intensive Office 12.

Outlook: Microsoft Office 12 looks dramatically different from Office 2003. The task-oriented paradigm common to the separate releases of Vista and Office 12 will be new to everyone. The tabbed command layout of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint may be a welcome change if your wrists ache from clicking through the myriad drop-down menus, and Microsoft hopes that the new layout will be more intuitive. But even well-intended software changes that seem graceful at first glance might reveal quirks or hassles during extended use. In the next beta 2 test rollout of Office 12 (expected next spring), Microsoft plans to reveal more about its server work flows for businesses. We also await more details on Microsoft's plans to better integrate multimedia communications, such as e-mail and instant messaging, within Office 12 documents. Peek at the impending changes in our Office 12 slide show, as well as in our separate previews of Word 12, Excel 12, PowerPoint 12, and Outlook 12.