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Microsoft to Users: You Need to "Survive" an Update

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Tom Bunzel points out a common trend in the tech world: Software publishers dump new versions on users with the expectation that we'll just learn to survive the changes, even when the new "features" bring us some benefits but also lots of headaches.
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In my work on this column, and for clients, I find myself on the Microsoft Office website frequently. Just recently a page in the Help and How-to section finally struck me as incredible. Mind you, I had been to this page frequently without really giving it a second thought. But this time I was taken aback. Figure 1 shows what I saw.

Figure 1

Figure 1

What's really incredible to me is that I have landed on this page many times without realizing its significance. I've seen a lot of articles on "surviving" an upgrade of Vista or Office 2007. But this is the first one I've seen that's actually written by Microsoft.

Here's what's really significant about this message: Microsoft admits that with Excel 2007, "it can take some time to get used to the changes," and you need to "[l]ive through the upgrade." More important is the fact that we all accept this as the normal course of a Microsoft (or any other) product cycle.

Let me ask the question that everyone seems to assume is irrelevant: Just who is the upgrade for?

What's the Point of an Upgrade?

Presumably the point of any upgrade is to introduce significant new features, to enhance the end-user experience in terms of productivity and stability. Yet we're asked to "live through" an upgrade that Microsoft itself says takes some getting used to.

One justification might be if the software included significant improvements that warranted enduring a period of pain. So let's examine the actual set of new Excel 2007 features that Microsoft lists on its Help and How-to site.

I won't repeat the list here. Suffice to say that, other than more rows and columns and other new limits, new OLAP formulas and cube functions, and perhaps quicker data connections, most of the improvements are in terms of how data looks, not how to calculate it—which is the essence of Excel.

I've written about and I appreciate some of the cosmetic features, such as conditional formats, chart effects, themes and templates, and quick style galleries for tables. But, to me, these features simply don't justify the first item in the list (the one that leads to the need to "survive" an upgrade): Results-oriented user interface. That description obviously refers to the Ribbon, which is the main new feature in Excel, Word, and PowerPoint 2007, and which may well be "results-oriented" (whatever that means), but is hardly intuitive.

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