The tabs at the top of the Ribbon switch between function groups, so in Word there are tabs for Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review and View. In Excel, Formulas and Data replace Page Layout, References and Mailings. There are also context-sensitive pop-up tabs in the Ribbon, which appear when you click on particular objects on your pages. Click on a photo, for example, and the Picture Tools Format tab pops up, leading to a Ribbon dedicated to graphics functions, like alignment, cropping and shadow effects.
Even with more space given over to the Ribbon, not every function you’ll need is immediately available. For the less well-used commands, there’s a series of small –possibly too small – buttons at the right-hand ends of the group title bars at the bottom of the Ribbon. These lead to dedicated, tabbed dialogs, containing more advanced commands.
As well as the commands available in the Ribbon, there are context-sensitive mini-toolbars that appear when you highlight objects on your page, sheet or slide. They fade in as the cursor moves closer to them and fade out again, as it moves away. This saves a bit of mouse twiddling and means, for example, that you can have immediate access to font, justification and emphasis controls, as well as having a different set of commands showing in the Ribbon.
If this is still not enough, you can pull out the commands you really must have instant access to and stick them on the Quick Access toolbar, which is at the left-hand end of the title bar by default, but can be positioned below the Ribbon, if you need more room. The flexibility is undoubtedly impressive.
Any changes to a user interface are bound to cause problems for some and there have already been complaints that some commands are harder to find than before or are located under non-intuitive tabs. Why are Headers and Footers under Insert rather than Page Layout in Word’s Ribbon, for example, and why is Insert Row in Excel’s Home tab, not under Insert? For those with Luddite tendencies, there are programs like Classic Menus for Word 2007, from AddinTools (www.addintools.com), which restore an Office 2003 look (but then why upgrade?).
It’s also true that the Ribbon takes up more screen room than the menu and toolbars did – five screen rows rather than three – leaving less for your document. This should be less of a problem with the continuing trend to larger screen monitors on both desktop and laptop PCs, but a command in the Quick Access toolbar minimises the Ribbon to just its tabs, to satisfy those dedicated to clean screens.
The Microsoft Office button is a silly bit of branding nonsense. Rather than having a File menu at top-left, where you can find the options necessary to open, save and close files, print them and send them over the Internet, Microsoft has introduced a button with the Office logo on it. The functions it offers are pretty much the same as before, only now there’s no visual reminder that they all have something to do with files, unless you happen to hover your cursor over the button.
The fundamental changes to Office go further than its pretty face. The file formats .doc, .xls and .ppt have been replaced (though you can still load and save them for compatibility’s sake) with formats based on XML. This open standard offers several advantages over Microsoft’s proprietary formats.
Perhaps the most important of these is that XML files are modular, so text, numbers, graphics, tables and charts are stored in separate modules within the file, which should make files more robust. In particular, if a file becomes corrupt, it will probably still be possible to open it, with only the damaged module potentially unrecoverable. If, for example, the module containing a chart in an Excel xlsx file is damaged, you should still be able to open its associated worksheet, view the numbers and recreate the chart.
The modularisation of an XML file also means elements like VBA code, as in Office macros, are held in separate modules from pages, sheets or slides and should be able to be filtered, with the potential of better eliminating malicious scripts from Office documents. Of course, that extra protection will only come if the XML format is widely adopted in place of the earlier proprietary formats.
To help organisations make the switch to XML filetypes, Microsoft has released a free compatibility pack for people using Office 2000, Office XP and Office 2003, which enables them to read, edit and save files as XML.
Microsoft maintains the new formats also result in smaller documents, though the comparison isn’t exactly fair, as Office’s XML files are automatically compressed, using zip compression. We took a 28.5K Word 2003 .doc file and compressed it to a 7.6K zip file. The same file, saved as a .docx, took 16.5K – larger than the compressed Word 2003 file, but smaller, and automatically so, than a ‘standard’ .doc file.