Microsoft launching new Office with Vista in Jan.

“Simplifying the challenges of today’s workplace.”

That’s how Microsoft is marketing the next generation of Office, scheduled to launch in January with Windows Vista, the latest operating system upgrade from the computing giant.

“It’s going to be different from what they are used to,” said Trevor Dierdorff, owner of Amnet, a Colorado Springs information technology provider for small businesses. “But it’s very intuitive – even more intuitive than their earlier programs.”

The Office package includes a series of upgrades to business computing staples Word, Excel and Power Point. The changes are designed to allow design novices to use the products as effectively as “power users,” Dierdorff said.

“The changes enable regular users to create spreadsheets, Word documents and Power Point presentations just like a power users,” he said. “They can create very professional-looking presentations, just using items available on the ribbon. Give it two weeks, and they’ll never go back.”

The ribbon replaces menu and tool bars in all three of Office’s main products. In Word, for example, users are able to redesign and see results “on the fly.” Several commands have been consolidated in Word, and scrolling over tabs in the ribbon allows users to see changes before they are actually made.

Dierdorff gets to see the changes made to Office as part of the new Windows Vista before the January release as part of an agreement with Microsoft. That way, he and his staff can become familiar with the new programs in order to fully educate clients about how to best use the new features.

With the release of Office 2007, Microsoft has “redefined the desktop experience to help people get better results, faster. Through a redesigned user interface, new graphics engine, better visualization capabilities and improved task management, people can produce more professional-looking content, find and assimilate information more quickly, and better prioritize their time and tasks,” according to press release from the company.

Microsoft is selling the Office package for as much as $679, but that package includes more than most businesses will need, Dierdorff said. The package that includes only Excel, Word, Power Point and a new Outlook, sells for just under $300. The new Outlook, in particular, will be a powerful tool for small businesses, he said.

“I’m really looking forward to all the changes in Outlook,” Dierdorff said. “Once you mix that with a small business server and Microsoft Exchange, you have calendar sharing, contact sharing, working collaboratively. You’ll have remote access to e-mail. It’s very new, but it will be a very powerful tool.”

Overall, the changes are designed to make it easier to create very professional looking documents, said Rob Helm, director of research at Microsoft Directions, a company that follows Microsoft developments.

“The changes are really useful – they aren’t just cosmetic like the 2003 version of Office, particularly the changes in Excel,” he said. “People who do use it daily will appreciate the graphics and the options for working the bugs out of formulas. Overall, there’s some shared capability in the new Office that might sound geeky, but could matter a lot, particularly to small businesses.”

Helm foresees a problem for daily users of Office – having to re-learn ways to get documents to look the way they did before the changes.

“If you use it every day, your fingers are used to taking the steps you need to make the documents carry a style,” he said. “Now, you’ll have to learn new ways to make the document look the same – and in some cases, it might take several steps to create basic styles you need.”

Microsoft spent years collecting data on Office users, he said. And the company is confident that most people will enjoy the enhanced graphic capability.

“They’ve changed a lot about the graphics,” he said. “It’s a matter of taste, of course, but the new fonts and new look should make it easier to get to a good-looking document faster. That will be beneficial, particularly for smaller businesses that don’t have a graphics professional in house.”

Specific new or enhanced features include the following:

  • The new interface — the first in more than a decade — is designed for easy browsing via tabs that are organized around specific scenarios or objects. The goal is to make the ribbon easier to use, Dierdorff said.
  • Traditional menus and toolbars have been replaced by a set of command tabs, which organize commands according to the common tasks that users perform in each application. For certain sets of commands related to editing a particular type of object, such as a chart in Office Excel 2007, contextual command tabs appear only when needed.
  • The mini toolbar is a new mechanism, designed to improve efficiency by exposing the features that a user accesses most often, without the need to move the cursor up to the ribbon.
  • New galleries let the user browse potential options and simply “pick and click” to get the desired result, rather than puzzling through complicated dialog boxes.
  • With the new live preview feature, users can see how a formatting or editing change will look before it is made.
  • SmartArt Graphics. Previously called IGX Graphics, this feature incorporates galleries of graphics and various effects to help users easily create professional-looking documents and presentations.
  • Data visualization tools in Office Excel 2007 provide conditional formatting with rich visualization schemes that allows a user to discover and illustrate important trends as well as highlight exceptions in data. Users can apply conditional formatting easily and identify trends by using colored gradients, data bars and icons.
  • The document inspector helps users detect and remove unwanted comments, personally identifiable information, hidden text or other information from a document.