Form versus Function in Office 12

9/15/2005 2:15:14 PM

Form versus Function in Office 12

While I don’t think any of the Office 12 applications have gone managed, I do suspect that the new Office user interface (the ribbons, galleries, status bars and other elements of the windows chrome) is based on Avalon technology (aka Windows Presentation Foundation).

If so, then Office 12 illustrates the dramatic impact of migrating an application to WinFX. In the process, the new ease in adding graphics and animations has probably made the product far more accessible. There remains the question of support for the new visuals in Macintosh Office. I suspect this support is enabled by Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere (WPF/E), which provides a subset of Avalon’s feature set.

Although it may be too soon to tell, most of the improvements appeared to be in the user interface rather than in the underlying document functionality. Such UI improvements can still be more meaningful, if there is a net increase in accessibility of features for most users. In this case, Microsoft provides a streamlined interface with contextual ribbons, galleries of predefined formatting templates, live formatting in place of modal dialogs.

I saw few fundamental advances in document formatting and layout. One advanced feature, the new page layout view in Excel, appeared to be ported from the Mac Office. I think Office is still constrained by compatibility with binary file formats. Because of this, we can’t expect radical enhancements in document formats such as master pages in Word, 3D presentations in PowerPoint, or non-grid metaphors and dynamic Improv-like views in Excel. Major new changes probably won’t appear until Office forgoes full-fidelity round-trip in binary file formats, which are essentially rigid cached versions of internal data structures, persisted on disk rather than parsed, validated, high-level descriptions of documents, but Microsoft has prepared the groundwork for the future by providing default XML+ZIP file formats for versions of Office, extending back to 2000.

I actually like the new Office and the direction it is going to. Over the past five years, Microsoft has look more at the form, not just the function, of the software, trying “to create software that people love to experience.” Microsoft calls it human-centered design in their Microsoft Design website. To further human-centric design, Microsoft has been hiring product designers for its various groups; some of the early successes have been Xbox, the scroll mouse, Outlook 2003, and MSN. Microsoft also has some research groups studying new UI metaphors based on 3D and other visualization features of next-generation Avalon. The design site also briefly describes Microsoft’s view of Office of the Future.

In the past, the designer role was occupied by program managers, who would build mockups with graphical programs or Macromedia Director. These program managers usually didn’t have formal design skills. Developers translated these designs, usually in an inferior way, to procedural code. Today, professional designers take on both roles of designing software.

The gaming community always had separate design roles, and it shows in  commercial software they produced. Microsoft is making it dramatically easier for themselves and other makers of desktop software by introducing declarative markup to separate UI from code and by releasing the new Expression suite of design tools: Graphic Designer, Interactive Designer, and Web Designer.

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Net Undocumented is a blog about the internals of .NET including Xamarin implementations. Other topics include managed and web languages (C#, C++, Javascript), computer science theory, software engineering and software entrepreneurship.

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