Microsoft: humble pie over Office bloat

Microsoft Australia’s Office chief today delivered a frank retrospective on how badly bloated Office had become over the years.

“We’re going to do to business intelligence what we’ve done to word processing. Now some of you might say that’s a bad thing” Tony Wilkinson Microsoft Australia’s Office chief said to journalists at Microsoft HQ in Sydney today.

It’s the kind of joke that causes a public relations consultant to gulp but the mea culpa didn’t end there.

Speaking at a briefing to journalists about Windows Vista and Office 2007 Wilkinson launched into a lengthy and frank retrospective on how Office came to be as bloated as it is today.

“We first of all added these menus that would collapse and expand which were … universally hated” he said.

“Stuff you didn’t use very often would drop off your user interface and everyone would just get really really really confused.”

“Then we tried these task panes that would appear down the right hand side of the screen. And they really did help but they were another place you had to look to find your functionality.”

“Little point changes to our user interface design weren’t helping the problem. The real problem was the application had increased too much in complexity.”

“When you look at Word 1 you had seven or eight menus where you could have 80 commands or so. But by the time we got to Word 2003 we had over 1000 commands. There’s no way we could make tweaks to the user interface to improve it.”

A subsequent speaker Microsoft Australia Technology Specialist Angus Logan said that there were 1500 commands in Word 2003.

“I was talking to Steven Sinofsky [Senior Vice President Windows and Windows Live Engineering] recently and he said 80 per cent of requests for new functionality after Office 2003 were already in the product” said Wilkinson.

“These applications were really big; they were unwieldy with the user interface that we had.”

But Wilkinson said Office 2007 will solve the problem. “Our new user interface is much more contextual. It’s based around what you’re doing.”

Wilkinson admitted as an experienced Office user that he often felt there were functions missing a perception caused by the cleaner user interface.

“To me it’s almost like it’s not all there. It seems too easy. Because the applications have been redesigned and presented in a more logical way it is actually easy to find stuff and it does seem like the applications are smaller than they used to be.”

However Wilkinson hosed down fears that end users would need to re-learn Office from scratch saying there would be a version of Office on the web that would allow users to point to where a task used to be in Office 2003 and get a visual demonstration of where it is in 2007.

After Wilkinson concluded his mea culpa monologue [presumably to the relief of the publicists dotted around the room] he continued on a lighter note.

“We do have a new feature called Smart Art and I must say I think we are all going to have a lot of fun with annunciating that” he said.

Wilkinson’s colleague Angus Logan joked that when using Office 2007 “Everything needs to be 3D. You can make things look like frisbees. They can be so 3D you can’t even read them any more.”

Logan also contributed the philosophical key to the whole Office feature bloat conundrum A¢a‚¬” indeed the meaning of life.

“Metadata is really the key to the universe and getting users to populate it is really the problem” Angus Logan told bemused journalists.