FORTUNE Small Business

Microsoft's four-letter #&!? Word

The world's most popular writing software, Microsoft Word, gets a dramatic new facelift. But is that a good thing?

Jonathan Blum, Fortune Small Business contributor

(Fortune Small Business) -- On January 30th, Microsoft will drop a revamped Word that makes Kirstie Alley losing 70 pounds look like John Madden changing his tie. I have been testing this radically new Word for the last month or so. My verdict? Business users, get ready for #&!? frustration.

According to Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500), Word 2007 is the result of a voluminous market research effort. "It used to be the loudest programmer won the Word design wars," says Paul Coleman, senior marketing manager for Microsoft Word. "No more. We built this iteration from years of feedback on about 6,000 data points in the program."

Microsoft's revamped Word, above, looks beautiful, but requires relearning the rules.

Microsoft's hard work paid off in many ways: Word 2007 is lovely to look at and use. But Word's 450 million global users can expect major, unwelcome surprises from the new code. Everything you've learned about Word over the years is now wrong. The familiar menu names - File, Edit, View, Insert, Format and the rest - are gone, replaced by cryptic new headers: Home, Insert, Page Layout, and Reference.

And clicking on a header no longer triggers a flurry of pull-down menus. Sure, Microsoft's bloated menus were a design catastrophe, but at least you knew where things were. No more. Now you get a long horizontal bar called "The Ribbon" that holds - no, hides - most Word commands. Although Mac OS X users will find the ribbon familiar, they will have no leg up in battle to learn the new Word: most commands are slightly, but devilishly, different.

Microsoft claims this new ribbon design promotes faster and easier word processing. But after four weeks of side-by-side comparative testing, I could discern no significant improvement in functionality over Word 2003. I'm not saying Word 2007 is a flop. Far from it. The new code is a fabulous ground-up redesign; the single largest upgrade in the program in 10 years. My favorite new features include direct-to-blog publishing and a contextual spell checker that catches homophone errors: No more screwing up "to," "two" and "too."

Word 2007 also offers more intuitive layout tools and better integration with Outlook and Excel. Microsoft predicts major productivity gains from using Word 2007 within the entire new Microsoft Office 2007 suite, which also ships at the end of January. And the new Word blends seamlessly into the powerful Vista operating system. Each document appears as a separate window with all of Vista's refreshing color, translucency and three-dimensionality. I feel weird saying this about a Microsoft offering, but Word 2007 is a distinctly elegant product.

On the other hand, upgrading to Word 2007 today means climbing a steep and tedious learning curve. On January 31, expect to hear a faint keening sound that slowly crests to a global wail as 450 million Word jockeys realize that their decades of hard-won experience are now useless. Surely there's a better way to bring in a better tomorrow.  Top of page