Office Politics

Microsoft’s Office 2007, the most annoying computer upgrade since Windows 95.

Office 2007

Even if you missed Bill Gates on The Daily Show Monday night, you probably know what he talked about. Today is the launch day for Windows Vista, so Gates and Jon Stewart spent half the time gabbing about Microsoft’s new OS and the other half joking about Gates’ password and interactive television. Not once did they mention the other Microsoft product that’s debuting today, Office 2007. That’s no accident. Why isn’t Gates stumping for you to buy Office again? Because he doesn’t have to.

Office is Microsoft’s real monopoly. Try to find a business, large or small, that doesn’t rely on some combination of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Watch Apple’s TV ads and count how often they remind you—Macs run Microsoft Office, too! Today’s Macs can actually boot Windows, but it’s Office that makes the sale.

The real proof is the price. You can upgrade your PC from Windows XP to Vista for as little as $100. The cheapest Office 2007 suite goes for $150. It’s got Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Did you want Outlook? That’ll be another hundred bucks for an upgrade package. (You can upgrade to Vista and Office 2007 separately—neither product requires the other.)

After playing around with Vista and Office for the last few weeks, I can condense my thoughts into one sentence. Upgrading to Vista is mostly painless but not necessary, while upgrading to Office 2007 is painful but inevitable. Vista goes out of its way to smooth your transition from Windows XP. As I wrote earlier this month, Vista’s installer let me know which applications might not run and what gadgets it doesn’t support yet. If I wait a few weeks for new device drivers, I’ll have no incompatibilities at all. Office 2007, on the other hand, seems to go out of its way to make your transition as difficult as possible. By default, the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files you create won’t open for people who have older versions of the software. Sure, you can save in “Office 97—Office 2003” format, but you’ll lose some of your formatting.

Microsoft does offer a conversion program for people with the old Office. It works only as far back as Office 2000, though, and it doesn’t work at all on Macs. (Apple users won’t get a compatible Office upgrade for another year or so.) My home office has two computers, a Mac with Office 2004 and a PC running Office 97. I’ve never needed to upgrade for work. Unless I buy the new Office, I’ll be out of luck when I get files from editors and publicists who don’t save in the old format.

Upgrading software is always risky. My fingers and toes twitch from the time I click OK until I’ve convinced myself everything’s working. Will it break my computer? Will it work right? I winced and held my breath throughout the Vista installation, then forgot the pain and anxiety quickly when I saw Vista worked mostly like a tidied-up version of XP.

I can’t say the same for Office. First reaction: They changed everything! Office 2007 deletes the old toolbars and menus at the top of the screen and replaces them with the Ribbon, an overlapping set of tabs that regroups each application’s functions into graphical tools rather than text-driven menus. Still photos don’t do the Ribbon justice. Watch this movie to see it in action. Even better, download a free 60-day trial of Office 2007—don’t worry, it won’t disable your existing Office software.

The Ribbon mimics the tabbed interfaces of the Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 browsers. It looks cool, but it took me most of five minutes to find, set, and test the Track Changes options my editor expects. As my deadline loomed, I panicked when I couldn’t find the option to save in Office 2003 format. It was hiding behind a new jewellike logo in the upper left corner called the Office Button.

Microsoft’s reviewer’s guide makes clear that all of the keystroke commands you know and love are still here. That will assuage speed-typing accountants who might otherwise refuse to switch. But as nice as the Ribbon and other user-interface upgrades are, it’s only natural that most users will react with annoyance rather than wonder when they find out they can’t switch to some kind of “Classic mode” in order to finish a write-up that was due 20 minutes ago (like this one).

Initially, I didn’t see the point of the UI’s tabs, thumbnails, and rounded edges. Was Microsoft simply trying to embrace the Web 2.0 aesthetic? I e-mailed PC World editor Harry McCracken to ask if I was missing something. McCracken praised the Ribbon as forward-looking, the sort of user interface you’d design from scratch for late-model PCs. “The old Office UI dated back to the days when just rendering a drop-down menu used considerable computing power,” he told me. “The new Office UI usually shows things rather than explaining them.”

He’s right. The Ribbon uses thumbnail images rather than text labels in most places. Elsewhere on the screen, ghostlike menus fade in and out as I work, offering graphical menus—not text lists—of the tools (fonts, styles, highlighting) I might want to apply. Office 2007 is still driving me nuts because I don’t know where things went. But now I can see where it’s going, and I can see the future me happily pecking away in Word 2007. But that leaves me wondering: If they really wanted to redesign Office from scratch, why not do like Google Docs & Spreadsheets and offer a full-featured Web-based version? I’d be happy with that right now, not in some indefinite future.

Office 2007 will delight the next generation of word processors and infuriate old fogeys. In that way, it reminds me less of its release partner, the soothing, seductive Vista, than of Windows 95—a radical overhaul that left nonbuyers behind and annoyed everyone who did buy it. Curse it now, but you’ll eventually upgrade to join the rest of the human race. And you’ll be glad you did. Someday.