In a past post we briefly discussed (in an admittedly negative way) the ribbon GUI that first appeared in Excel 2007 and is now entrenched in all Office 2010 applications. Well, around here we started to talk a little more about it and it's pretty clear that the ribbon is one of those things (like anchovies on pizza or the New York Yankees) that you either love or hate – there's not a lot of middle ground.
The real issue is that the ribbon is a major hurdle to many Excel users who would like to upgrade to a later version of Excel to take advantage of new features. So let's talk about the ribbon in a little more detail and see if we can help with the decision-making process in upgrading to either Excel 2007 or Excel 2010.
So, what about that gosh-darned ribbon? First of all, if you really don't want to use the ribbon, you don't have to. Third-party vendors have stepped in with relatively inexpensive (about $15 to $30) add-ins that can recreate the classic toolbar in either Excel 2007 or 2010. Some versions can be used in all Office 2010 applications and can even be deployed among multiple computers; in at least one case (ToolbarToggle) the toolbar is customizable just like in older versions of Excel.
Keep in mind, however, that many people do like the ribbon and you should probably consider trying it before buying a toolbar add-in. If you decide to use the ribbon, be prepared to spend some time learning it. We don't recommend doing this by the seat-of-your pants – sit down at your computer with your favorite caffeinated drink (you'll need it) and go through some good training materials. Some possibilities are the Chandoo.org Master the Excel 2007 Ribbon free learning guide, and Microsoft's Up to Speed with Excel 2007 learning tool.
But beware: Microsoft decided (what were they thinking?) that the ribbon in Excel 2007 could only be customized using xml (Extensible Markup Language) and programming code. Many Excel users save precious time and significantly improve their productivity by customizing that classic toolbar to fit their particular needs; did Microsoft expect the typical user would want to learn xml too after going through the ribbon learning curve? You can also purchase add-ins that do this programming for you, but fortunately this is not an issue with Office 2010 and the ribbon can now be customized as easily as the classic toolbar.
There are lots of other things to consider if and when you decide to upgrade. You can find more than a few discussions on the web weighing the pros and cons of the various versions of Excel, and that is beyond our scope here. Ultimately, many users who are perfectly happy with their trusty old software (remember Windows 98?) will upgrade simply because of the inconvenience of using an outmoded version, especially with the loss of technical support and compatibility. At the end of the day, there are thankfully a few inexpensive workarounds to address most concerns about the ribbon – it's just too bad that something as basic as the user interface had to be an issue at all.