How Microsoft Lost the API War in User Space

There’s been lots of news recently about the new version of Microsoft Office due in late 2006. One of the biggest changes is a radically different task-based user interface for the Office suite. I’m astonished by the following quote from Julie Larson-Green. Julie is the group program manager for the Office User Experience at Microsoft. That’s quite a title. In a backgrounder for journalists about the new Office, she quotes:

PressPass: Can I upgrade to Office “12" but keep the old UI’s look and feel?

Larson-Green: No, we don’t have a “classic mode." We surveyed customers to find out what would help people transition, and they told us they really wanted us to help them move forward, rather than doing any kind of classic mode. In addition to redesigning the UI, we’ve added a lot more functionality in Office “12." Faced with the same challenge of making all this new functionality available in the old UI, we couldn’t keep the old command-oriented model and make it easier for users to find new features, so we decided to make a bolder move.

Julie. Are you mad? Seriously.

Joel Spoelsky brought attention to a similar issue by noting that there are two opposing forces at work at Microsoft which he terms The Raymond Chen Camp and The MSDN Magazine Camp. Briefly the Raymond Chen Camp work hard to ensure new products are backward compatible. It’s not glamorous work but it makes life easier for developers and users. The MSDN Camp wants to bring exciting new technologies to developers and if they have to rewrite their code, too bad, so sad.

Joel’s thesis is that by constantly pushing new APIs and new new APIs, the MSDN Camp is pushing developers away. Stability has value.

Now, the User Interface is to users what APIs are to developers (User::User Interface as Application Programmer::Application Programming Interface). There may be parts of the UI that suck, there may be whole vast swatches that are unused, but it’s comfortable and familiar.

Julie’s note shows that Office is going over to the MSDN Camp after years in the Raymond Chen Camp. For years, Excel allowed you to use Lotus 1-2-3 shortcut keys to make transitioning easier. This quaint little tradition remains in Excel 2003. Check out Tools, Options. There’s a tab called “Transition" that doesn’t even say what you’re transitioning from. It’s like a little appendix.

Abandoning a “classic mode" for the new Office 12 is going to cause problems for a significant percentage of Office users. How will Add-Ins work without a menu structure? What about “keyboarders" such as myself, who use Excel, but don’t use a mouse?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I just can’t see big businesses, which need stability in their computing environments being as enthusiastic as Julie about these changes.