Microsoft this week unveiled a redesign of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook “rolling out gradually over the next few months” to its more than a billion monthly Office users. The company broke down the user experience changes into three groups: simplified ribbon, new colors/icons, and search.
As you can see, I want to focus on the ribbon here. But I do want to quickly discuss the other two.
In terms of new colors and icons, it’s great to see Microsoft using scalable graphics, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. They’re coming to the web version of Word for Office.com first, then to Office Insiders using Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Windows later this month, Outlook for Windows in July, and Outlook for Mac in August. In short, Office users can expect new coats of paint to show up over the next few months.
Search is probably the most interesting of the three. Microsoft is calling the improvements here “zero query search,” which apparently means simply “placing your cursor in the search box will bring up recommendations powered by AI and the Microsoft Graph.” This has already started rolling out on Office.com, SharePoint Online, and the Outlook mobile app, but it’s one of those features that could get significantly better over time, because of its apparent dependence on AI.
Back to the ribbon.
Before January 2007, when Microsoft released Office 2007, Office apps had a standard toolbar. Word 2003, for example, looked like this:
Word 2007 changed the game by introducing the Office ribbon. It was bigger, reorganized each of the productivity suite’s various functions, and ushered in an era of ribbons in various other applications, both first-party and third-party. Here is Word 2007, for comparison:
It has now been more than a decade, and the Office ribbon has stuck around. Sure, it’s easier to hide now, and you can set it to only appear when you click on one of the tabs, but it’s still largely the same.
The many Office applications continue to amass features, so in some ways, the ribbon is a response to the productivity suite becoming more and more powerful. But 99 percent of the time, you simply don’t use the majority of it.
The video above unfortunately does not show Word’s new simplified ribbon, but here it is for the Word web app:
Eleven years later, and Microsoft is finally going to give us an Office ribbon that only includes the essentials. This simplified ribbon is, uh, the size of the toolbar that millions of Office users grew up with.
More importantly, you will soon no longer have to decide between leaving the ribbon visible so it’s actually useful (at the cost of screen real estate) and hiding it completely (so that you have to open it every time you want to get something done). If you like the ribbon, however, no need to worry — Microsoft says: “People who prefer to dedicate more screen space to the commands will still be able to expand the ribbon to the classic three-line view.”
Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’m looking forward to this simplified ribbon, especially because it’s been so long. Precisely for that reason, though, there’s a bit a bit of an issue.
“Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for Windows offer our deepest, richest feature set — and they’re the preferred experience for users who want to get the most from our apps,” Microsoft says. “Users have a lot of ‘muscle memory’ built around these versions, so we plan on being especially careful with changes that could disrupt their work. We aren’t ready to bring the simplified ribbon to these versions yet because we feel like we need more feedback from a broader set of users first.”
Come on, Microsoft. Don’t tease me like this!
If you’re going to reveal that a simplified ribbon exists, give it here.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.