Office 12: What IT Needs to Know

Behind the flashy new graphical user interface and productivity enhancements is one big impact to IT. We spotlight three key benefits -- and one big expense -- any IT department should consider in its upgrade plans.

While Office 12 probably won't be released until sometime late in 2006, it's never too early to start planning an implementation. Whether you upgrade at Office 12's release date or a year or two later, it's probably inevitable that you'll upgrade.

Now that Office 12 beta 1 has finally been released to 10,000 testers (including Enterprise Systems), the question to ask is: what does it mean for the enterprise, and what must IT consider now, when planning for the new release?

Microsoft says that applications within Office 12—"the most significant release in more than 10 years" according to a press release—are easier to use, more end-user friendly, and increase end-user productivity. That's especially true in the enterprise. For example, the company promises that Office 12 will offer the capability to fill out an InfoPath 12 form from a browser (including Firefox). SharePoint, and sharing data in general, will take center stage, too: in Office 12 you can save an Access database to a SharePoint server so you can take advantage of SharePoint's backups and data access restrictions.

Unfortunately, Beta 1 included only client-side code for Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, OneNote, and Publisher. We'll have to wait for Beta 2—slated for release in the spring—to see how everything fits together.

Meanwhile, there are several key features that should make IT sit up and take notice. It's never too early to start planning for your Office 12 implementation. Here we look at the pros and cons of the new release—at least what the client-side applications indicate—for the enterprise.

The first question, of course, is whether the upgrade provides sufficient benefits to your users. In our testing, we've identified three new areas that will bring increased productivity to enterprise users and to IT in general.

Benefit #1: The BI Connection: Excel as Dashboard

It's no secret that Excel is a favorite application of analysts. In Excel 12, you'll be able to manipulate even more data—up to one million rows and 16,000 columns. Storing data isn't the issue, however. Spotting trends or out-of-the-norm values is likely more important to your users.

The most significant improvements in Excel fall in the area of data visualization. In the new release, a colored gradient in cell backgrounds can be used to represent a cell's value. The higher the value, the longer the bar.

Excel 12 also gives you the ability to create your own dashboards. Traditionally, the three-color traffic light (red, yellow, green) has been a popular way for end users to spot problems. Now traffic lights—and a variety of other graphics, such as arrows—are available in Excel 12, and you can define the intervals each colored light is assigned. In Figure 1, green lights represent values over 67% of the maximum, yellow for values between 33 and 67 percent, and red for those less than 33 percent. These intervals are user adjustable, and you can base indicators (traffic light colors, arrow directions, or whatever icon you choose) on values in addition to percents.

Figure 1: BI Dashboards from simple formatting in Excel 12
Click to enlarge

Many BI dashboards also use gauges to help users visualize data. Excel 12 isn't there yet, but its icon sets (up/horizontal/down arrows, plus a variety of round dots similar to those used in Consumer Reports' rating charts) may suffice in the meantime.

Excel's PivotTables have been another favorite tool of experienced analysts. Sadly, there's not much new to make them easier to use. The wizard remains pretty much untouched, and though most of the functionality is exposed in the replacement for the toolbars (called the "ribbon" and discussed below), so many options may have the opposite effect of the one intended: PivotTables may look even more complicated than they are (see Figure 2)

Figure 2: The PivotTable Ribbon from Excel 12
Click to enlarge

Benefit #2: More Efficient Task Management

Another application to benefit enterprise users is Outlook 12. The new version automatically pulls together tasks no matter where they originate—by creating a task in Outlook directly, by choosing to follow up on an e-mail, or from a task assignment in Project and PowerPoint. That will make for more efficient task management. Outlook 12 also lets users overlay multiple calendars. While the calendars aren't merged, the feature combines calendars for display purposes. That makes it easy to view your own calendar, then overlay your team's meeting schedule (saved as a separate Outlook calendar on a SharePoint server, for example). Outlook doesn't point out any conflicts—you'll have to look for those yourself.

Benefit #3: New File Format Reduces Disk Needs

How the new Office 12 file formats play out with end users remains a big question. That's because there are just as many plusses as minuses.

The new Office 12 file format for each application is now a compressed conglomeration of files. In Excel 12, for example, the file that created Figure 1 was actually a set of 19 separate XML files, all combined into a single ZIP-compatible file. One XML file in the collection is for the workbook as a whole, with an additional XML file for each sheet, an XML file for each chart, another file for the drawing layer, and yet another for any themes used. The idea behind so many files within a single file is that if your workbook is corrupted, you still may be able to recover individual parts of the workbook.

We experimented with the concept, renaming an .XLSX (Excel 12) file with a ZIP extension. We opened the ZIP file, deleted the Sheet2 and Sheet3 XML files (the sheets themselves were empty), renamed the file with the .XLSX extension, and then tried to reopen the file. Excel displayed a warning message that the file was possibly corrupt and asked if we'd like to recover the file, but it never explained what it thought the corruption was. It would have been nice to know that Excel thought one or more sheets were missing. Had this been a file we hadn't purposely manipulated, we'd have had no clue about what was wrong.

You can open Office 2003 (and earlier) documents, and by default they'll be saved in the original file formats. Microsoft says it will have a conversion program to open Office 12 documents in Office 2003. Even so, you're still protected, since the File/Save and File/Save As commands allow you to choose an Office 2003 version for your current document.

On the plus side, with the exception of a new file extension, everything about the new file format is transparent to the user. The compressed file format will probably save you considerable hard drive space as well. Our graphics-rich test documents saved about 45% over the same files saved by Office 2003 applications. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Our only caveat: if your users share documents with others (including customers or clients outside your organization) who are using earlier versions of Office, make sure they understand that their best option is to save files using the previous Office version's file formats. Any transition in file formats always takes time to filter through the installed base. Office 12 is no different.

The Trouble is Training

Assuming these benefits are substantial enough to justify an upgrade, Office 12 brings new elements into the installation and support mix.

Most noticeable about Office 12 is its brand new graphical user interface (GUI). There's much to praise about the new GUI: its well-organized buttons and shortcuts, organized by task, appear in a new "ribbon" across the top of the screen. These ribbons and their associated tabs (see Figure 3 for an example from Word 12), plus pop-up context-sensitive ribbons (such as one for formatting tables when you click inside a Word table) may, indeed, expose existing functionality to your users. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications eliminate the main menu (Outlook mixes the traditional menus with the new ribbon-based GUI). Enterprise training and support staff may be less sanguine about the new release's benefits. While updated menu systems and new features are an expected part of any upgrade, Office 12's new look and feel is so radically different that it may actually reduce productivity significantly, at least temporarily

Figure 3: The Write Ribbon from Word 12
Click to enlarge

We expect that after installation, your help desk will see an increase in call volume about "whatever happened to [insert feature name here]?" While the organization of the ribbon's groups and the tabs of these applications may be fine for new or occasional users, experienced users are going to stumble—the new arrangement of functionality is that different. Worse, if your users are power users, you may hear anguished screams of frustration as they discover that the new GUI is not customizable. No custom toolbars (only one toolbar, the Quick Access Toolbar, remains for users to load up with icons), no modifications to existing ribbons, no nothing. While IT support can find much to laud in a uniform standard, users who have come to tailor Office to their own preferences may feel cheated.

Worse, in terms of training, all training material will have to be revised—or even rewritten. That's because with the main menu gone (save for the File menu), instructions provided for Office 2003 (and earlier) typically rely on menu sequences that are no longer available in Office 12. Though Office 2003's menu keystroke sequences (Alt O, T to open the Tab dialog box, for example) still work, they'll make no sense, given that there's no corresponding menu structure.

Beta 1 for Clients Only

In addition to the core applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Outlook), the beta includes OneNote and Publisher, which we did not explore. OneNote's adoption is too small to be considered, and it's unlikely large enterprises use Publisher in anything but small workgroups, if then.

Since Beta 1 focused only on the client side of Office, we haven't seen any of the administration or installation tools, so we don't know how much easier (or complex) managing Office will be. Interesting features are promised; synching between mobile/remote systems and devices also looks promising. Until we see Beta 2, we can't make any recommendations about adopting Office 12. However, for enterprises considering the move (at or even a year after release), we strongly urge you to consider the heavy burden that (re)training will take in your organization with this software.

If you want to be notified when Beta 2—a public beta—is available, you can sign up at http://www.microsoft.com/office/preview.

Your comments are welcome. Please write to jpowell@esj.com.