People have speculated rampantly about how closely Office 2007 Beta 2 will reflect the final product. I've read everything from "nothing will change between now and the final release" all the way to "a lot will likely change between now and general availability."
Reality lies on a plane somewhere between these extremes.
First, some perspective: We started planning Office "12" (which later became known as the 2007 Office system) in earnest towards the latter half of August 2003. By the time we ship this version, we will have worked on it for over three years. The physics of software development dictate that there's no way we'll be making large-scale architectural changes during this last 15% of the product cycle. Not, at least, if we expect to ship the product later this year as we intend.
So, if you've been holding out hope that we're going to be replacing the Ribbon with a ray-traced speech-enabled version of Clipppy--or any other major change of overall direction for that matter--I’m sorry to say it won't be happening.
The UI concepts we put in place have been vetted over several years, over thousands of tests with 10,000's of people across the globe. We wouldn't have made this investment if we weren't convinced that the new UI was the right thing for people who use Office.
Back to the original question: does Beta 2 reflect the final product?
In many ways, yes. The general interaction model of the Ribbon, the mechanisms by which we lay out and scale the tabs, and the kinds of controls we expose are likely to remain the same. We're likely finished building galleries for features and finished hooking up Live Preview. The interaction design of the Mini Toolbar, and the general look and feel of the Office menu and Options dialog boxes are very similar to how they will be in the final product. In a sense, if you squint, most things already feel similar to how they will feel in RTM.
This doesn't mean that we’re not open to feedback... keep in mind that Beta 2 is actually the fourth pre-release build of Office 2007 we've given out to testers over a series of years, and we've made an incredible number of changes based on feedback in that time. Literally hundreds of major improvements have been made, most of them directly from the feedback people have sent and the real-world research being conducted.
From the beginning, we wanted to make Office 2007 really reflect "UI version 3.0", and we knew the only way we could do that was to get it in people's hands early and to iterate, iterate, iterate based on what they told us.
Now for the big question: What things in the UI will be changing after Beta 2?
Here are four examples of the scope of changes that will occur between now and RTM.
Visuals and Fit and Finish
Beta 2 doesn't quite reflect our final visual design. We have added an additional color scheme to go along with the blue and black of Beta 2. We've changed the upper-left corner (or the "Northwest corner" as we like to say) based on feedback to make it work a little better and to look great with Vista's glass frame. Hundreds of new icons and other visual tweaks will have been made by the time you get the final product. This is really the time when we do a lot of fit-and-finish work--making sure the pixels are perfect all around.
I mentioned that the Ribbon interaction design won't be changing much, but we have made a lot of improvements to the content within the Ribbon. Our XML-based architecture makes it relatively easy to move buttons between tabs and to change the scaling of the UI, and we've been hard at work taking all of the feedback we’re getting from Beta 2 and turning it into an improved design. I’m especially excited about improvements made to PowerPoint, but I bet we’ve made close to 1000 individual changes to Ribbon content since Beta 2 (many of them minor, of course.)
There are a couple of places where we've done additional work to make scenarios feel complete. In the area of keyboarding, for instance, we've added affordances to allow power users to better use the Ribbon in its collapsed state. We continue to enhance the usability of the Office Menu, including adding many of the frequently-used save formats directly to the Save flyout. For the first time, I think we have the right design here.
Among other things, we've also added back the ability to close the window by double-clicking in the upper-left hand corner (you Windows 3.1 lovers!)
We're spending a huge percentage of our team on performance, both in lowering memory requirements and in taking up less CPU time to make the UI respond faster. We continue to make strides build over build and milestone over milestone, and we'll keep measuring and optimizing until the end.
While these are four big areas in which we've made improvements, they’re not representative of all the work we're doing in the UI, nor certainly of all the other teams in Office working just as hard as we are. We continue to work on getting the details right for all aspects of the product, making sure it's ready for the showroom floor. And there are a few flourishes still to come: One of my favorite things coming up is an updated Picture Styles gallery--some of the styles are just jaw-dropping. And new product icons, of course...
In short: don't expect the core concepts to change, but we're working hard on sweating the details. You will see many improvements in the time ahead.