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Office 2007 Beta 2 screenshots reveal extensive UI reworking, again

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Office 2007 Beta 2 screenshots reveal extensive UI reworking, again

Redmond (WA) – The official blog of Microsoft Office program manager Brian Jones this afternoon revealed a link to a series of screenshots, apparently approved for public viewing, from the next beta of the applications suite now known as Office 2007, to be released to testers soon. While the first screenshots from “Office 12’s” Beta 1 cycle showed stark and radical differences that some users, on first glance, found scary, the Beta 2 cycle shows the volume has been turned down a bit. Although the visual changes will still be significant from a new user’s perspective, the differences won’t be nearly as staggering.

In a guest blog posting that also appeared today on MSDN, Microsoft’s product design manager for the Office Design Group, Brad Weed, noted the removal of the controversial button tabs that deluged the early design. Weed both defended them and knocked them in the same stroke, by writing, “That whole [tab] experiment was largely my fault. You see, my name is Brad and I have a tab problem. I was really hopeful that we could innovate in this area. Tabs just seem so… 90’s.”

The new ‘ribbon’ in Microsoft Word, from Office 2007 Beta 2.

The new functionality feature called the ribbon remains in Beta 2, although its layout with this rendition is significantly cleaner and easier on the eyes, if not also the mind. Palettes, which take the place of Beta 1’s button tabs, group related controls in two or more rows of gadgets with varying sizes, though the gadgets now appear more like traditional buttons and drop-down menus, that you’ve seen in Windows before. These new palettes are now corralled by a kind of titling bar called the contextual tab, now locatedalong their bottom edges, and can be resized via a more familiar looking “stretch” gadget in the lower right corner, reminiscent of window devices since the first Macintosh.

Tabs do retain a place in the new layout, however, though they have been tailored to more closely resemble the conventional menu bar. Drop-down lists of menu commands are still gone from this new rendition. Top-level categories of commands do remain, though not in the traditional “File | Edit | View…” organization made almost canonical by Apple. In their place are command categories along an upper bar of tabs that now more closely resembles the conventional menu bar. But the contents of the ribbon, for each tab you click on, never descend on top of, or cover up, your work.

Icons that are used more often are now bigger, and have items clustered around them. For example, the Paste icon is featured in screenshots as much more prominent, in the upper left corner, in the Clipboard palette of the Write tab. This fact alone will still be ominous for those who think of the text shuttling process as composed of “Edit, Cut” and “Edit, Paste.”

The new ‘Office Button,’ from Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2.

And just so you don’t think the designers at Microsoft returned to their straight-laced roots, one radically new element does premiere in Beta 2: A big, round Office logo icon now appears in the upper left corner of each Office window. Dubbed the Office Button, it will now apparently represent the functionality of the current File menu. Beside it to its immediate right, along the title bar – not the tabs that replace the menu bar – are the traditional icons for saving files, undoing, and redoing commands.

“I hold hope that there’s another mechanism out there that pushes us beyond the now conventional tab,” Weed writes this afternoon, “just as the Ribbon pushed us beyond the conventional menu. I guess if it took 20 years to challenge old-school menus it will take at least another five or 10 years to challenge the tab. For now, I really like where we ended up.” Office 2007 is expected to be generally released in tandem with Windows Vista.