Microsoft overhauls key software platforms

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Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled the biggest design overhaul in ten years for its main PC software applications including Word and PowerPoint, signalling its latest attempt to overcome a problem that has become increasingly acute: that most users are happy with current versions of the software and see no reason to upgrade.

With an estimated 400m users of current versions of the software, the new “user interface” for the Office suite of applications will affect the everyday computer experience of millions of office workers around the world, and will take users between two and 12 days to master fully, according to a Microsoft estimate.

That in turn could lead to significant additional training costs for companies whose employees rely on the software, though Microsoft said that those initial costs would be balanced out by lower costs in future of teaching new workers to use a more easily-used piece of software.

Persuading existing users of Office to buy new versions is central to Microsoft’s efforts to reignite its growth rate, which fell below 10 per cent for the first time in its most recent fiscal year.

The suite of applications produced $8.6bn of operating income last year, almost as much as the $9.4bn of the Windows PC operating system, making the planned launch late next year of new versions of both pieces of software Microsoft’s most important new product cycle since Windows 95.

While Microsoft has added many new features to the Office applications over the years, most users have continued to use only a small proportion, said Julie Larson Green, a programme manager for the new software.

With more than 1,500 features in the latest version of Word, compared with only around 100 when the programme first came out, the user experience “started to break down,” she said. “We knew we had a problem.”

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, on Tuesday showed off a new look for the applications at a conference for software developers in Los Angeles. The many tool bars and “task panes” that have characterized the existing software are to be replaced by a new “ribbon” at the top of the screen that lays out the most commonly used applications, he said.

Microsoft also said it would make it easier for users to change the formatting and improve the look of their documents by introducing a system that suggests possible visual styles and automatically reformats without requiring detailed instructions from the user.

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