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Tuesday, November 13, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Road to Office 2008: installation and interface


The Glass Menagerie

Mousing over the dentures causes them to slowly glow in a blue light. Selecting a tooth rolls down the Gallery view of templates, but then the buttons animate across the screen and the template items dance into place. Mousing over templates invokes a minor magnify effect. Unlike the Dock, the animation feels artificial and jerky. It conveys the behavior of a website built in Flash, except rather than being wowed by an animated interface you'll only encounter once, you're stuck with the glowing, zooming, bouncing animated behavior on a daily basis.

This doesn't seem appropriate for a word processor and other productivity applications. Fortunately, you can mostly ignore the Vista-inspired Elements Gallery (apart from the dentures), and confine yourself to the Office-style toolbars.

The toolbar icons also animate on rollover, somewhat less subtly than the existing Office 2004, but not in the same manner of the hyperactive Gallery. In order to match the unified look of Leopard, which blends the Toolbar into the window title bar, Office 2008 renders all of the Office toolbars in the same dark aluminum finish, which makes its applications look very dark overall.

That darkness seems particularly out of place next to the Gallery decked out in vividly glowing candy colors and bright white highlights (below). The Gallery menu item's teeth also popup a "tool tip" that repeats what is already being displayed below it:

Office 2008


Office 2008


Inspector Clouseau

AppleInsider's initial installment of its Road to Office 2008 series introduced the look of the new Office Formatting Palette, which now looks more like the inspector panel from iWork. The problem is that while it copies the idea of icons across the top, it choses its own icons and functions, so there is no real commonality with Apple's apps.

It might be obvious why the MacBU didn't follow the design of iWork any closer; on one hand, they don't want to look imitative, and on the other, doing so would require reworking a lot of the historical arrangement of settings in Word.

Here is the new Office 2008 palette, the previous version from Office 2004, and the iWork Inspector from Keynote:

Office 2008


Apart from some new polish, it's the same old Office 2004 Palette; a half dozen rows of settings hiding behind disclosure triangles, and now a series of icons at the top that tack on new features. Some seem smart, like the citation manager window for bibliographies, while others not so much, such as the dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and translation sections all stuffed into a single panel. (Mac OS X already has a system wide dictionary, but Microsoft has chosen to use its own.)

The MacBU could have delivered a system wide plugin for Mac OS X's new Dictionary 2.0, then added the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia. Another section of the Palette is the Scrapbook, which could similarly have been delivered as a Dashboard widget. Instead, it too is buried away inside Office, thus far negating some of the value Microsoft could offer customers.

Even more oddly, the Office Palette flips around like an Dashboard widget for setting its display settings, turning into a modal, translucent black window (below). Flipping the palette in the beta of Office 2008 causes other windows to stutter and redraw, making for a somewhat clumsy effect.

Office 2008


On the flip side, there are settings for configuring what the panel does after a period of inactivity. By default, it rolls up into the icon bar (below). It's an entirely custom built human interface device.

Office 2008


Worth an Upgrade?

It may be that the MacBU can refine certain elements such as the palette to work and act more fluidly over the holidays prior to the mid-January release of Office 2008, but the real issues in Office don't seem like bugs as much as design compromises.

At the same time, there's not many options for replacing Office for Mac. Apple's simpler iWork will appeal to some users, but it doesn't yet deliver all of the features in Microsoft Office. Alternatives such as NeoOffice also have serious weaknesses. The degree of stability Office 2008 attains by January will have a major impact on whether the update gets rated as a buggy mistake or a solid update saddled with a few too many interface features.

Outside of the user interface, Office 2008 also delivers Universal Binary support for Intel Macs, a significant step, albeit a couple years overdue. That alone may be enough for Mac Office users to upgrade in January. So what about the new features of Office? AppleInsider's next article will take a deeper look at Word.