Gates Previews Office 12
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It what is being hailed as the biggest changes to the Microsoft Office suite in decades, Chief Software Architect, Bill Gates, has previewed a new look and feel and a new programming model for the desktop.

Although more than a year away from release the attendees at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles were treated to a preview of a new user interface and some hints at the future direction Microsoft might take to maintain revenues from its highly profitable productivity and operating system product lines.

The high profile announcement, that the next office suit, code-named Office 12 will feature a new user interface was probably less important to professional developers than some of the more fundamental changes the company plans to make in the development and delivery of software for the Windows and Office platforms.

But if Microsoft is to get users to update their systems, the company has to come up with some compelling reasons and the new UI, which is the most dramatic change to Windows in decades might do the trick.

Key to the changes is the system’s ability to adapt what’s on the screen depending on what the users is doing, or should be doing.

Based on extensive user research the company is faced with a situation where customers are quite satisfied with the existing way Office works, but Microsoft points out that with the command list in Word 2003, for example, now reaching over 1500 it is getting progressively more difficult for users to find the features they need.

Part of the way the company plans to do this is to present commands options in galleries which show the results rather than listing commands.

To save screen real estate, Microsoft plans to take all the commands that are not about authoring documents and move them to a less intrusive place. By contextualising the access to commands Microsoft hopes to make it easier for users to find the one’s they want to use.

So depending on the context, certain features and commands will become visible while others will be hidden away, simplifying the workspace.

Mostly, this will be presented in what the company is calling the “ribbon”. Here users will find the commands for document creation and presentation. Then the “galleries” will offer a visual representation of the kinds of formatting choices you can make in your document without needing to set a number of individual elements to achieve it. Selecting these choices might make multiple changes to the document in a sort of like auto-formatting in a try-before-you-buy kind of approach.

Microsoft says the new interface is so intuitive that very little training will be required for users migrating to the new software, which is just as well, Microsoft says it will not offer a “classic mode” option. Users upgrading will be forced into the new UI immediately.

However, a feature code-named “Super Tooltips” brings the Help topics closer to the user by integrating it with the interface. Microsoft has discovered that one of the problems with the existing help system is that users often don’t know what to call the feature they are trying to find.

Other than a new look and feel, however, there are deeper changes in train at Microsoft. Office 12 will take advantage of a new programming model in development for the Vista (Longhorn) Operating System, code-named WinFX.

Vista, which is also slated for release late next year introduces some fundamental changes to the operating system model, though not as fundamental as originally planned. Microsoft announced earlier this year that the new file system, WinFS saying that it couldn’t complete the development work required in the timeframe.

This could be due to the massive re-architecture job the company is thought to be undertaking to make Windows and Office more amenable to an on-demand computing model.

With the growth in broadband penetration, emergence of the application service provider model and the increased popularity and functionality web-based applications the industry software model is changing and Microsoft needs to keep its cash-cow operating systems and productivity apps relevant to the new paradigm.

The company wants to turn Office into a platform as much as an application and some of the plans emerging from Microsoft seem to support the idea that both Office and Vistra are being developed with this in mind.

In addition to WinFX, the new programming model designed to take advantage of the Windows Presentation Foundation and the Windows Communication Foundation (.Net subsystems that handle specialised services for applications), Microsoft announced Atlas, LINQ and Windows Presentation Foundation “Everywhere”.

The latter is a Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere is a subset of the full Windows Presentation Foundation, which enables the ubiquitous delivery of content-rich scenarios on different platforms and form factors.

Atlas is the code name for a Web client framework for building Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX)-style applications using DHTML, XML and script. Atlas simplifies development of richer and more interactive Web applications that can run in any modern browser.

Finally, LINQ, or the Language Integrated Query Project is a set of language innovations for the Microsoft .NET Framework that makes it simpler for developers to access data. LINQ extends the .NET Framework to offer integrated querying for objects, databases and XML and will allow developers to write queries for accessing data natively in C# or Visual Basic without having to use other languages, such as SQL.