User interfaces: Which way from here?

When it comes to software, I like living dangerously. So for many months now, I've been spending my workdays laboring in multiple prerelease versions of Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista and Office 2007, starting with early iterations that were crashy first drafts at best.

At first, I felt like a crazed loner. Now I have plenty of company, thanks to new beta 2 editions that are free to anyone who's adventurous enough to download and install them. If you're game, check out Yardena Arar's review of Vista beta 2, and Michael S. Lasky's coverage of Office 2007 beta 2.

Final versions of Vista and Office 2007 are still months away, but the betas are close enough to fully baked that I've been able to form real opinions about them. As I live in these two upgrades, I'm struck by how utterly they differ in usability.

Clarity, Microsoft says, is a key Vista goal. But if consistency is a component of clarity, Vista beta 2 still skews fuzzy. Everything from Computer (My Computer) to Windows Photo Gallery to Internet Explorer 7 does away with traditional menus, but each replaces them with something slightly different, and it's not always clear what was objectionable about menus in the first place.

That's not the only instance of change in Vista masquerading as improvement. For instance, networking options, which were merely disorganized in Windows XP, have become downright baffling.

I'm not saying that nothing in Vista's interface will make your life easier. (The tidy, compact new Start menu, for instance, is a lot more manageable.) And the operating system's hardware-related enhancements alone could make it a worthy upgrade. But purely from the standpoint of interface changes, the OS, at least in beta form, is no great leap forward.

Office 2007
Office 2007

Office 2007 is a different story--and thank heaven for that. With dozens of toolbars, hundreds of menu items, and thousands of features, its interface buckled long ago under the sheer weight of the suite's features. Office 2007's solution: Replace most standard menus and toolbars with the tabbed, visual Ribbon.

At first, Microsoft's enthusiasm for the Ribbon set off alarms in my head. After all, this is a company that thought a talking paperclip was a breakthrough. After a few weeks in Office 2007 beta 2, though, I'm enthusiastic, too. For the first time in eons, I feel like Office's interface is helping me find features, not hiding them.

Why the wholesale change? "It's not as if the idea of Office being bloated is new," says Jensen Harris, a Microsoft program manager. Earlier makeovers tried to simplify on top of the existing UI, and muddled matters further. This time, Microsoft aims to reinvent rather than tweak.

I can't think of another example of a major developer trashing a decade's worth of interface design and starting over. I'm glad Microsoft did. Here's hoping that other products, Microsoftian and otherwise, crib some of Office's ideas--and that Vista isn't the end of the road for Windows interface evolution.

"Up Front" Renamed "Techlog"

Starting in this issue, the column formerly known as Up Front becomes Techlog, which is also the name of my blog (http://blogs.pcworld.com/techlog). In both of Techlog's flavors, I'd like the column to be a dialogue: Drop me a line at harry_mccracken@pcworld.com (mailto:harry_mccracken@pcworld.com), or stop by the blog and comment.

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Harry McCracken

PC World: Techlog
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