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Windows Vista and Office 2007 finally saw the light of day on Jan. 30. Chris Capossela, who manages the Microsoft Office System family of products, talked to eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli about the products, the experience and the future.

The Office 2007 System brings some 34 Office suites, programs, servers, services and tools. Microsoft says this offers customers flexibility, but some argue it adds complexity, is confusing and creates greater lock-in between products. How do you respond to that?

We believe that the future of computing is going to be about software and services and when we talk about software we are talking about software running on desktops, servers and in the sky, so there are a lot of different offerings. If you look at things from the perspective of how our customers actually consume them it is easier to understand.

For example, the Office suite itself is made up of some core applications like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. We then have different configurations based on what we think consumers may or may not be interested in buying.

We’re hoping that we have done a good job of combining the individual applications into productivity suites that are tailored for different users.

Read more here about the host of Office offerings.

With regard to lock-in, customers get to choose what they do and don’t buy. If you walk into Best Buy today you’ll see Word and Outlook as a stand-alone upgrade SKU. You don’t have to buy a particular suite to get the individual applications.

Tell me more about the plans for services along with the software, particularly in the future.

Our ultimate goal is to be the leader in providing productivity solutions to customers and we have a great business that builds around that premise today. Office Online is free to end users, but does show some advertisements based on the types of people that use the site and we make some revenue from that.

For the most part, that’s the type of model that is taking off for broad Web services. But there are also some subscription opportunities with our services today. I think it will be a combination of advertising revenue that the end user pays for only through giving up some screen real estate, and some subscription revenue for very high value hosted services. That is probably the way it will play out on the Web looking forward.

There was initially a lot of concern about the costs associated with training users on the new ribbon-based user interface in Office 2007. Has that concern dissipated?

The feedback we have had on the new office user interface has been very positive. The data from our beta customers shows that it will only take a couple of hours before the average Office user doesn’t want to go back to the old version of the product.

With regard to those die hard users who really know the ins and outs of the product, it will probably take them a couple of weeks to get to that same point. So we’re not hearing huge concerns from our customers about training costs, but this is one thing we will continue to monitor. We have also provided a lot of free training, built into the product, so that when you click on the “help” icon it connects you to the training materials on Office Online that can help you find a command that may have moved under the new interface.

So can users expect substantial changes to the ribbon in future versions of Office, or will these be more enhancements?

People have generally been very positive about the ribbon and so I would say that we focused on the rich, authoring experience and trying to make that far simpler in Word, Excel and PowerPoint and that focus was really helpful. But now, given the feedback we have already received and assuming it continues to come, we will take the lessons learned from that and most apply that to the applications we didn’t apply them to in the Office family this past time around, such as OneNote and Project and Visio.

So I don’t think our user interface innovation is done. It is not just about spreading it to other applications; if anything I think the work we have done in Office and the reception we have got has made us all the more excited about the users ability to advance and has opened up the potential for a whole lot of innovation rather than limiting it.

Next Page: Who will be the early adopters?

Who do you expect to be the early adopters of Vista and Office and do you expect customers to upgrade them together?

In general, having both of these products launching together is very positive as in general IT people can look at both of them and only have to touch the desktop once, which is a much cheaper way to go. There is a class of customer who will roll out both products on the same PCs, while others will wait and just update the image that they put on the new computers they bring in.

But the fastest deployers are midsize companies, which are traditionally much more nimble and which have a massive volume of desktops around the world. However, there are also huge early adopter companies who helped us test the product, like Citigroup, which plans to roll out 350,000 in the next year.

What will the experience be for the user if they upgrade to either Vista or Office 2007, but not both?

We tested the earlier version of Office on Windows Vista to make sure they run very nicely, so you’ll get some of the Vista graphical elements with, say, Office 2003, such as Vista Glass, where the window frame is reflective. Likewise, the Office 2007 ribbon will work and look just the same on Vista Service Pack 2. So you don’t have to be running on Windows Vista to get the ribbon and to get glass you don’t have to be running Office 2007.

Click here to read more about how Microsoft tried to explain away the controversy over Outlook 2007.

But one exception I need to call out here are the instant search capabilities that work best when you have Outlook 2007 running on Vista. This is a feature I would hate to give up as it brings the ability to quickly search in Outlook for any phrase, email or person, and that happens through the integration of Office 2007 and Vista. If you are running Outlook 2003 on Vista, you won’t get this feature.

It has been reported that e-mails in Outlook 2007 are now being rendered in Microsoft Word rather than HTML. Is that correct and, if so, why the change?

So, in Office 2007, by default, when you write or read an email in Outlook, we are using Word as the underlying engine for that. The reason for this is that we have done a lot of work to make Word the best authoring and reading environment possible.

So, when you are writing an e-mail, it’s nice to get the spell check capabilities of Word, or the ribbon capabilities of Word, right in that e-mail authoring and reading experience.

What are you hearing from developers and partners about writing applications for Office 2007?

Developers, third parties, get to build solutions that feel much more like they were part of the original Office design, even though they are built by a separate company. In the old-style Office application, the third-party basically built a toolbar that showed up and just added to the toolbar clutter in the products and did not feel like a great experience. With the new ribbon, this can be integrated far better into Excel or Word so that it looks like it came from one company and is just one ribbon, part of which is from the third party. We think that is really exciting for the software development community to build into.

Many of your competitors have used concerns about the new user interface in Office as a way to get customers to migrate to their products. Has that been effective and what are you seeing on the competitive front?

Well, the biggest competition we face is from older versions of Office and people’s satisfaction with those. The companies that clone a lot of the Office functionality, some of our open-source competitors, face the challenge of having to innovate or do all the engineering work to clone the functionality in Office 2007.

We haven’t seen any massive uptake to those sales pitches. What we have seen is major downloads of Office, from the beta versions to the 60-day trial program, which has already seen more than a million downloads. That number just blows us away at how high it is. So there is a high level of interest in the new user interface and the product.

So does the Office team now start working hard on the next version, Office 14?

We started the planning process for 14 about a year ago and so a team of people have already been working hard on envisioning the next set of scenarios that we want to bring to life.

We’re obviously very early in the thinking of those, but a lot of people have been living and breathing what’s next for us.

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