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Office 2007: Changing everything you've known about computing for 20 years, just for the hell of it.
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Written by WATYF on Thursday, 30 November 2006 (5839 hits)
Category: Nerdery

I remember it fondly... the days of my youth... (ok, so I can't really remember my youth at all, but that's beside the point)... The good ol' days of playing with computers... teaching the other kids in my class how to use the Commodore 64's... writing dumb little programs in BASIC that never worked... Running pointless commands on the Apple IIe's... and then came the Windows GUI. I was in love. As if by natural instinct, I could find everything. It all made sense to me. When I opened an application, I could learn pretty much anything that the application was capable of, just by looking though its menu system... the old familiar menu bar... File.... Edit.... View... Tools... Help.... ah... good friends...... its too bad that Microsoft has decided to plunge a rusty knife straight into their hearts and send them, screaming, to their demise.

You see... I've been noticing a disturbing trend lately. Every time I try the Beta (or latest) version of Microsoft software, I find that they've decided to completely change how navigation works in a Windows application. And, I guess, in some way, that might be cool... IF they were smart enough to make the same changes across all of their apps AND if the new way was actually better than the old way... but we're not so lucky. Open up the new Windows Live Messenger... where's the menu? Well... it's hidden... you can choose to display the menu, if you can find the option that does so. Tongue out Open the latest Windows Media Player... similar deal... nothing is where it used to be and finding anything more advanced than "play" and "stop" is a chore. But if you search long enough, you'll find the old menu. This is the disturbing trend showing up in much of Microsoft's newest releases. They take the navigation system that you're used to, and that works, and that has worked for countless years, and they hide it from you... only offering it up if you're smart enough to find it.

But then comes Office 2007...

As if having a different GUI for all of their other apps wasn't bad enough, and as if having to hunt to find the standard menu (so you can get to more features) wasn't enough of a pain... they decided to just go ahead and trash the entire menu system all together... that's right... no more File.... no more Edit... no more Tools... ("Tools", of course, being the well-known portal to pretty much every advanced setting in pretty much every application ever written since as long as I can physically recollect. Tongue out). Now I have no idea where to go... all I've got is these huge, ugly, bloated, kindergarten looking, ginormous-icon-filled "ribbons" staring me in the face and not offering me half of the functionality that I want... and what they do offer, they offer in a less convenient manner than the previous system.

Before I go much further, I feel it necessary to preface with a few things. First off, anyone who's read this blog even a little knows I'm not an anti-MS zealot. I'm not predisposed to dislike the new Office... actually, I was rather hoping that I would like it. And if you start to think that any of this is just because I'm adverse to anything "new" and want to hang on to the old way of doing things, don't bother. I like new things (when they're better, of course). I programmed in VB for years before going to VB.NET, and while there were plenty of "new" aspects to .NET, and plenty to learn, I was glad to do it, because it was a step up. And that's what matters most. Also remember that these are my initial observations after only using Office 2007 for a brief time. I'm sure, after a while, I'll get more used to it, but I still wanted to take some time to stomp my feet like a five year old and complain about how they ruined a perfectly good thing... so... without further ado... I will now commence with ripping Office 2007's new GUI to shreads.

First off.... let's cover the toolbar vs. the ribbon issue. Here's what my toolbar looks like in Excel 2000.

Excel 2000 Toolbar

Note how little room it takes up. Also note how it has almost EVERY single thing I do on a daily basis available in ONE CLICK. Need to Open a file? One click. Need to Paste Value something? One click. Open Subtotals? One click. Delete the selected columns/rows/cells? One click. Add a data filter? One click.

Now let's look at the ribbon in Excel 2007.

Excel 2007 Ribbon

Note how much more room it takes up. The old toolbar is 724 pixels wide by 95 pixels high. The new ribbon is 1241 by 145. The amount of space I have to cover to find what I need has increased by more than 100%... and that's just counting one ribbon. If you add in all of the other ribbons, I have to cover more than ten times as much screen space to find what I need. 

Also note how only a few things area available in the first ribbon (vs. all of my functionality being available on the toolbars). If I want anything other than what's on the "Home" ribbon, not only does it add clicks to my navigation (i.e. selecting a new ribbon), but it also means that I have to memorize where every function is, so I know which ribbon to click on... otherwise, I'm clicking back and forth between ribbons until I finally find what I'm looking for. And this is where people will say, "But the ribbons are intuitively laid out". Sometimes, yes, and sometimes no... but regardless, I still have to stop what I'm doing and think to myself, "OK... which ribbon would "Protect Workbook" be on?" And don't tell me that I should have "intuitively" known that it was on the "Review" ribbon. These are things that need to be memorized, and require a break in the train of thought of the user. In Office 2000, there was no break, and there was no need to memorize... all my commonly used (and even not-so-commonly used) functions were right there in front of me (AND taking up less space, even though more functionality was being displayed).

And this is where people will say, "Well why don't you just add those functions to the "Quick Access menu?? duh!". Well that's a very good question... to which I can only reply.... WHY DIDN'T MICROSOFT?!?!?!? In Excel 2000, there is a default toolbar... it suits many people, but not all... as you can see from my screenshot above... my Excel 2000 toolbar is customized. Certain things that I never use have been removed, and certain functions have been added. But this customization took me, literally, seconds to do (I did the customization, on a different machine, while writing this article, since my main machine already has Office 2007). But in Excel 2007, I get 4 measly functions on the "Quick Access" bar by default, two of which I never use. So in order to get all my functionality back, I would have to build two full toolbars, from scratch. And just to add insult to injury, you can't DRAG AND DROP when customizing the Quick Access bar??!?!?!?! Hello??? Are we back in 1996??? Isn't everything supposed to be drag and drop now?? So, if I want to go through the trouble of building all of my toolbars from nothing, then I can't just look through the commands and drag them up to the Quick Access bar... I have to go through the whole "Add/Remove" and "Up/Down" organization method (which is not quick, by any means). Not to mention the fact that building an entire Quick Access toolbar structure makes the ribbons useless (since the "ribbon" is nothing more than a glorified toolbar). You'd just have a bunch of redundant icons on your screen.

Another issue is the fact that you can't customize the ribbons in any way. If there's an entire huge section of a ribbon that you know you'll never, ever use, and it's just wasting space and cluttering up your display... you can't remove it. And if there's a function that you always use that you really think should be in a particular ribbon, you can't add it.

And that's the kicker about this whole thing.... yes, the ribbons can help the average, never-used-Office-before user find their way around. And some people will find them intuitive.... but not all people are the same. And not all people are beginners. The whole beauty of Microsoft applications up to this point was that they could be customized quite heavily, and they gave you a good starting point to work with. If you lock ALL users into ONE way of doing things, then you are an idiot. Everyone has a different way of thinking... different people's brains process information differently. There is no ONE good way to lay out a complicated app... you need to allow the user to take a "default" way of doing things, and change it to suit their needs, and you need to make it easy to do so.

And to top it all off.... they don't even use the ribbon in every Office application. There's still a standard menu in Outlook (thank the Lord). Publisher, and Picture Manager, and a few other minor apps also still have the standard menu system. So it's not like I can just forgot the old way of doing things and adapt to this new one. I've gotta be reminded on a daily basis of how much I hate the new way. Tongue out

Just to be clear... I don't think "everything" they did with Office 2007 is "crap". I have already noticed some very handy functionality changes. My main beef is that the new GUI/navigation is slower, and less customizable, and goes against what a normal Windows user has been doing for countless years, for no good reason. I don't remember hearing any public outcry about how the standard toolbar/file menu system was just so inconvinient that it needed to be replaced, or about how horrible it is that you can find your way around almost every Windows app in existence because they all use the same type of navigation system. Again, if this had been a "light years better" improvement, and if they had actually been consistent in adopting it in all of their apps, I might not mind learning a new way. But it's just not. Now, functionality could be anywhere (and we'll get to that later)... and that applies to all these new MS apps... Messenger... Media Player... Office... without a menu, every app will have a different place that they put their functionality, and you'll have to learn it each time you install something new... whereas before, whatever you needed to do, you knew you were gonna find it somewhere in one of the menus.

Oh yeah, as an aside... I would be remiss if I didn't take a brief moment to rant about the atrocity that is the "Getting Started" screen in Access 2007. Which, of course, you can't turn off!!!

But the hell-on-earth that is the new Office GUI isn't the end of my woes. Now, I have to go and try to find all of the advanced functionality that I have been using, on a regular basis, for literally years... and some of it wasn't so easy to find in those "ribbons" (if it was even possible to find it at all).

Since this article has gotten way too long, I'm going to start a new one where I chronicle all of the stuff that is harder to find/do in Office 2007, and how you can find it in the new GUI.


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I was glad to find that someone else is as mad about this attempt to force the user to do things 'their way--one way'. This task-oriented approach, rather than tool-oriented, drives me nuts. And the attempt to obfuscate the underlying computer from the 'task' is just more of the same old line 'You really don't need to know how that works; trust us, we will take care of all the details.' Except when it breaks and I have to fix it; and this is MS, so it WILL break. The sheer amount of wasted productivity having millions across the world relearn how to do even the most basic task will be staggering. Like you say, if the new way improved things, it might be worth the investment of time to learn, but the 'new way' appears to be an inconsistent, twisted road that has a lot of blind alleys. If you were just starting out, I guess it would seem normal, but to me it like redesigning an automobile to remove the steering wheel and replace the function of steering with a dozen levers connected by wires to the wheels, some of which may need to be moved in opposite direction to their neighbor in order to turn right or left. 'Just for the hell of it', indeed.

Posted by Keith Vinson, on 04/18/2007 at 09:38

Dude, just downgrade to 2003. The fact is, 99% of anything new and useful for the office suite has already been invented and incorporated by microsoft coders. The logical thing for Microsoft at this stage would be stop working on the Office suite and fire those programmers, but obviously that's not the best business decision.

Posted by dude, on 11/11/2007 at 16:28

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