IT pros still spooked by Office's ribbon interface

Tops list of pre-deployment concerns over Microsoft's Office 2010

Four years after its debut, the "ribbon" interface in Microsoft's Office suite still gives businesses the shudders, a research firm said today.

The interface first appeared in Office 2007 to catcalls as users struggled with the massive redesign, which substituted a wide ribbon-like display at the top for the traditional drop-down menus, small icons and toolbars that epitomized Windows applications' look-and-feel for decades.

Months after the release of Office 2010, which also relies on the ribbon, enterprise IT professionals still think the interface is a headache, said Diane Hagglund, a senior analyst at Dimensional Research.

After polling more than 950 business IT executives, managers and staffers, Hagglund found that the ribbon and its impact on worker training led all worries about deploying Office 2010. Nearly half of the IT pros -- 45 per cent -- pegged user training on the ribbon as a concern, more than double that of worries about the new software's stability and reliability, and significantly higher than the next-most expressed anxieties, including non-ribbon training issues and add-in compatibility problems.

In the past, Microsoft has argued that training problems stemming from the ribbon interface have been overblown . Users, however, have continued to knock the ribbon, whether in Office on Windows or in the just-shipped Office for Mac 2011, which features a variant on the interface .

Dimensional also noted a slow uptake of Office 2010 so far, with just 20 per cent of organizations polled having rolled out the suite to any PCs outside test scenarios.

But next year should be a barn burner for Microsoft. Forty-two percent of the polled IT professionals said their organizations would broadly deploy Office 2010 in 2011, more than twice the 18 per cent who said the same about this year.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft touted a 15 per cent year-over-year increase in Office sale revenues for the third quarter, the boost coming from 2010's June launch. The company also announced that sales of Office 2010 were 20 per cent higher than for Office 2007 during its early months.

At the same time, Microsoft said consumer sales of Office -- the bulk of which would be the lowest-priced Home & Student edition, historically the biggest retail seller -- were "outstanding," but said nothing similar about how the suite's selling to businesses.

Hagglund had a hunch why enterprises are hesitant to jump on Office 2010. "What was really interesting was hearing [from IT professionals] about the increased complexity of the desktop," she said, ticking off factors ranging from multiple versions of Windows -- including the nearly-decade-old XP -- and multiple editions of Office to Windows 7 migration plans that are only now getting into swing.

"I really feel for the front line IT people today," she said. "It's just getting tougher and tougher."

The most surprising result of the survey, said Hagglund, was the large number of IT professionals who said that their organizations are running Office alternatives as well as Microsoft's suite.

Nearly one-in-five said that they are using OpenOffice.org, the open-source project that's recently been roiled by the defection of important contributors to the new rival, LibreOffice.

Ten percent of those polled by Dimensional also said they're using Google Docs.

"I was shocked," admitted Hagglund, referring to the 18 per cent result for OpenOffice.org. "And it's across all sizes and verticals," she added, "not just education, as you might think. That was the biggest surprise to me, the strength of OpenOffice."

Dimensional's survey was conducted for Kace, a systems management and deployment vendor acquired by computer maker Dell earlier this year. Hagglund's report can be obtained at Kace's site (registration required).

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