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Microsoft highlights Office 2008 origins in new sneak peek

Microsoft's latest update on Office 2008 for Mac is its largest yet, offering a sweeping overview of the new features and also underscoring the roots of the completely new interface.

The software developer's official sneak peak website provides visitors with a visual explanation of each feature in the new Office suite, which will represents the first major change to the Mac version of the software in roughly four years.

Features common to every program, such as the My Day scheduling tool, are highlighted alongside changes to individual programs such as Word's Publishing Layout View for creating newsletters and flyers.

But while the web page supplies the basic details, the company explained in its Mac Mojo blog that the path taken to reach this final look and feel was a complex one that sought to borrow from Office 2007 for Windows without diluting the Mac interface.

The Windows team's core achievement for Office 2007 was the Ribbon interface at the top of the screen, said Microsoft Mac Business Unit researcher Nadyne Mielke. The system completely scraps the traditional menu system in favor of a tabbed strip with dynamic buttons that change depending on the immediate context. These buttons are highly visual and are meant to help users find features that would have otherwise been buried layers deep.

"A feature can be the coolest feature in the world, but its usefulness is degraded if no-one can find it," Mielke said. "One of the most compelling results [of the Ribbon] was that their users liked seeing graphical representations of actions because it helped them visualise what they were about to do."

Microsoft Office 2007 Ribbon Interface

Microsoft's Office 2007 Ribbon Interface (Windows)

This interface was helpful but not necessarily what Mac users would expect, however. Since the Mac OS X interface dictates a menu bar with certain fixed categories, copying the Ribbon wholesale simply wasn't going to work, according to the Microsoft blogger.

The result was the Elements Gallery: the new layout incorporates the tabs and button strips of the Windows interface, but has a common set of buttons and still holds the traditional Mac menu bar. Users can see the obvious actions that can be taken at a given moment, such as changing a PowerPoint slide transition, but can always find certain common actions (such as creating a text box) in the same location.

Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Elements gallery

Microsoft's Office 2008 for Mac Elements Gallery Interface

After some initial adjustment, the Elements Gallery proved to be a useful change to the design and shifted from just a change applied in Word to the guiding principle for the entire Office package. The control method now only requires "finishing touches" and will be ready for the final release sometime in early 2008.

"It's almost time to let our software out into the wild," Mielke said.