There's never an Office doctor around when you need one

ITworld.com –

For many, the Microsoft Office 2007 experience has been, well, something that falls well short of bliss. For others, it is a breath of fresh air. It would seem I fall somewhere in the middle.

When the Office 2007 system was released to manufacturing on Nov. 6, 2006, reactions among those from the IT staff to administrative assistants to home users varied widely, from excitement to horror. With its all-new user interface that dumped the decades-old File, Edit, View, Insert, Format, Tools hierarchical menu structure for a highly graphical context sensitive "ribbon bar," there was no going back, only forward.

Yes, tens of millions of licenses have been sold. And yes, there are lots of new features under the hood that extend security and the concept of collaboration, especially with SharePoint Server.

There's just one problem. I can't find many people who are using Office 2007, at least not willingly.

It's not hard to understand. Although many underlying dialog boxes are the same as those used in recent generations of Office, understanding how to negotiate the ribbon bar to get there can be a frustrating undertaking. I've spent lots of time staring at the ribbon bar, unable to get there from here, only to find instantly what I'm looking for a week later. Curiously, the old blank stare and trance often returns later on, when I can no longer find what seemed obvious just days -- or hours -- earlier.

More than once I've given up, saving a document to the server, walking over to my second PC, where I then call up the same file in trusty old Office 2003. It's a comforting experience, not unlike stepping into those old worn-in slippers with a mug of hot chocolate on the side.

The ribbon bar interface truly is ingenious. It's just, well, different. Very, very different.

Another challenge I've seen is file formats. As you know, Microsoft dropped its proprietary binary .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats in favor of an open, XML-based format that's there for anyone to examine. Instead of its earlier practice, cramming body text, graphics, and other document components into a single file that goes south when one part breaks, the new formats separate components into separate files, pictures here, tables there. And it's all collected in container files ending in .docx, xlsx, and .pptx.

Want to see for yourself? Append ".zip" to a filename so you get file.docx.zip. Now you can unzip this container and see all of the constituent directories and files that, taken together, become the whole document. Corrupt one piece, and the document, so the theory goes, should by and large be ok. Great idea.

The challenge, of course, is cross-generational communications gap. Just as parents can't understand what their kids are saying, older versions of Office are clueless when it comes to deciphering these new-fangled files. Sure, add-ons that can read these files are easily downloaded from the Microsoft Web site, but you first have to know about them.

Where this takes a hit is in terms of productivity. Patrick can't read Stephanie's files. He spends a half hour trying to figure out the problem, and eventually calls tech support. They'll get it fixed, but by now several people have become involved, the work is delayed, and, well, time is money.

By no means am I calling the new interface a failure. On the contrary, I think it's a triumph of modern thinking. If it's all we had 20 years ago, there'd be no question. But new is different, and different requires a period of adjustment. Perhaps a long one.

A friend of mine has turned this tumult into opportunity. Though he's not yet wearing a white lab coat with his name embroidered over his heart, he is making "house calls," helping small businesses understand what's going on. There's no shortage of patients, either.

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