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

Road to Office 2008: installation and interface


The MacBU Middle Ground

The challenge to the MacBU was to fit Office 2008 into the modern Mac desktop while incorporating as much similarity with Office for Windows as possible, all while Apple and Microsoft are both working to differentiate themselves in different directions: Apple with simplicity that builds on what users already know, and Microsoft with a complex and flashy information overload that aspires to be completely different in each release.

Previous versions of Mac Office catered to the demand for simplicity on the Mac side with drag and drop installation. After you drag the Office 2004 folder into Applications and launch an app, it would run through an initial mini install which copied in Microsoft fonts and other required support files. In Office 2008, this is all gone. It now requires a full standard install. In comparison, while many simple Mac apps support drag and drop installation, even Apple's iLife and iWork suites run through a standard install process.

The standard installer (below) offers customization for excluding specific apps, Office Fonts (which includes the fonts Microsoft commissioned for Vista), and Automator Actions (which are only available if you opt to pay the $150 premium for the Standard Edition over Basic).

Office 2008


After installing Office 2008, Microsoft recommends you uninstall previous versions, and offers to find and remove earlier versions automatically.

Office 2008


However, the current beta installer couldn't find a previous version of Office 2004, despite it being in the usual location on the drive. (Obviously, this will be fixed in the shipping version.)

Office 2008


Office 2008


Once finished with the installation (below), it kicks off a secondary Setup Assistant process.

Office 2008


The Setup Assistant (below) offers to import settings from your previous version, which seems like a bit of a puzzle given that the installation process earlier attempted to find and delete any existing versions. Fortunately, the installer couldn't find what was under its nose, so the previous version remained around long enough to allow the new version to import what it needed. In our source's case, it identified two previous versions of Microsoft Identities (mail settings) and asked which should be imported.

Office 2008


Setup step two is the recommended but optional choice (below) of sending your hardware information to Microsoft along with reports of "how you use Microsoft software and services." This is not enabled by default.

Office 2008


And finally a Get Started page (below) where you can review what's new, register, and check for updates.

Office 2008


Office 2008 Window Toolbars and Controls

The new Word (below top) shows off the MacBU's compromise between delivering a fairly standard Mac Toolbar appearance on top, along with a Ribbon-like band called the Element Gallery, which mixes in the bright blue gradients and interface density of Vista while also incorporating Mac interface elements such as the Safari-like rounded buttons and the page navigation controls.

The new interface also adopts the template-centric design of Apple's iWork applications, except that rather than starting with a template, you select individual pages to fill specific components of your document using template pages, such as a cover page, a table of contents, or bibliography page.

Office 2008


The toolbars used in Office aren't the standard Mac OS X Toolbar; they don't offer to resize icons, you can't just display text labels, and they aren't configured using drag and drop sheets like standard Mac Toolbars as noted above. Instead, the Mac Toolbar is really a replica of the standard Office toolbar, which allows you to select between and customize the rows and rows of familiar icons (below).

Office 2008


You can also choose to display the toolbars as floaters, as was the default in Office 2004 (below), although this only works for additional toolbars and not the Standard home row toolbar, which is permanently affixed to the window. The toolbars make more sense attached to the window, as is the new default.

Office 2008


Using Office style toolbars also means that configuration of the toolbars is done using the same unusual interface as previous versions (below), a kluge of an Access-inspired window. It is nothing like the standard Mac Toolbar sheet with drag and drop icons, in part because Microsoft offers twelve standard toolbars of icons (the above window graphic only displays four of them), and users can remix their own custom toolbars on top of that.

There's simply not room in a graphical selection sheet for all those icons, but whoever uses more than 10 percent of them?

Office 2008


Of course, Office fans who bought the program because they want this type of complex customizability might prefer this familiarity in Office 2008. However, this is now missing on the Windows side, so it is headed toward being entirely obsolete; Office 2007 for Windows uses an entirely new Fluent/Ribbon configuration system.

Unless Microsoft repeals the Fluent/Ribbon in the same way it rolled back the new Word 6 menus for irate Word 5 users, the entire concept of rows and rows of toolbar icons is now dead: frozen in time on the Mac, and abandoned for a different presentation on Windows. The MacBU appears to be stuck in the middle: holding onto the old version, either unwilling or unable to implement a regular Mac Toolbar.

The MacBU's solution to this problem appears to be something of a diversion — the frosted Element Gallery is somewhat like a cool blue icing on top of a burnt cake. If you want to scrape it off, you can deselect the Gallery view using the Toolbar icon. The template section hides to provide a less busy window with an extra inch of content display (below).

Office 2008


However, Microsoft finally fixed the floppy disk icon. Previous versions of Office on both the Mac and Windows depicted the floppy disk with the metal shield backwards from how a real floppy looked, with no hole in the shield and an extra hole in the disk. That wouldn't actually work, of course.

Microsoft's erroneous floppy icon also has no "HD" hole, indicating it only has a 720k capacity and dates from the 80s; it does have a copy protect hole. (The correct but stylized new Mac floppy depicts no holes.) Even this year's Vista version of Office has the same incorrect floppy disk icon. It is amusing that the MacBU fixed this error for Mac users in 2008, ten years after Steve Jobs yanked the floppy out of the iMac and stomped it out of existence.

Even slightly more ironic is the fact that Word 2004 used a Zip drive icon, which at least some PowerMacs prior to the G5 in 2003 offered as an option. Four years later, the MacBU has reverted to the floppy disk, either to atone for Microsoft's decades of error or as a nostalgic nod to saving documents in the era Word originally sprang from.

If you'd rather concentrate on your document contents than the icons, you can also hide the tool bar entirely by clicking on the pill icon (below). Sadly, this doesn't also hide the Gallery menus.

Office 2008


It seems like the MacBU did deliver a simpler, cleaner, more professional, and less menacing looking overall window style compared to Office 2007, but that seems to have more to do with the user interface guidelines of Mac OS X versus Windows Vista. Given the difficult task set in front of it, it is not obvious how the MacBU could have delivered a significantly better overall user interface without simply starting over and using standard Mac window Toolbar.

Doing that would likely have required a massive overhaul to Office for Mac and might have resulted in breaking compatibility with the Windows version, but the Windows version doesn't use the previous Office toolbars anymore either.

As it stands, the Office for Mac interface looks like a cross between Vista and Leopard. The worst part isn't the look, but rather its behavior. While the new Elements Gallery looks nice enough in a screen shot, the interface is hyper-animated in an excessive way.

On page 3 of 3: The Glass Menagerie; Inspector Clouseau; and Worth an Upgrade?