There are three ways to use the keyboard to get work done in the new Office 12 UI.

Type 1: Keyboard Shortcuts

Let's start with the simplest and most direct form of keyboard access: keyboard shortcuts.  Keyboard shortcuts are single key combinations that perform a command.  Some of the most well-known shortcuts in Office are CTRL+S for save, CTRL+P for print, and CTRL+B for bold.

All of the keyboard shortcuts in Office continue to work exactly as they did in previous versions.  In fact, we're doing more in the UI to advertise the keyboard shortcuts and adding new ones based on usage data.  That's because keyboard shortcuts will usually be the single most efficient way to perform commands with the keyboard.

Word continues to support customizable keyboard shortcuts as it did in previous versions, although this capability hasn't been extended to any of the other programs yet.

Type 2: Accelerating the Ribbon with KeyTips

In menus-based Windows UI, you can navigate the top-level menus by pushing Alt + a series of accelerators (underlined characters in each menu item) to "navigate" the menu structure like you would with the mouse.

"KeyTips" take the keyboard accelerator idea and adapt and extend it to take advantage of the Ribbon.

When you press ALT in Office 12, KeyTips appear in front of the Ribbon tabs and each of the chunks in the tab.  KeyTips are little tooltip-like indicators with a single letter or combination of letters in them, indicating what to type to activate the control under them:


(Click to view full picture)

In the case of the picture above, I could type 'I' to navigate to the Insert tab, or press 'U' to navigate to the Page Setup chunk.  When I press 'U', the next set of KeyTips appear, this time showing letters for every control within the Page Setup chunk:


(Click to view full picture)

Now, I can press any of the letters indicated to perform the command under the KeyTip.  We've even extended the metaphor to menus and dropdowns hosted in the Ribbon:


(No need to click, there's no bigger version!)

In the above example, I could press ALT+U+G to toggle the Excel gridlines.  If I wanted to memorize a keyboard shortcut so that it worked from wherever I was in the product, I would memorize ALT+P+U+G (the P is for switching to the Page Layout tab).

Overall, this system has some advantages.  Number one, it is very easy for people to learn--even people who are normally turned off by using the keyboard.  I like to call it "Hansel and Gretel."  You just follow the crumbs of bread, pushing the letters as you go.  It couldn't be simpler.

Second, KeyTips allow every control in the product to be keyboard accessible.  In Office 2003, only the menus could be easily navigated using the keyboard; gaining keyboard access to toolbars could be done but only with an extravagantly long and convoluted series of keystrokes.  In the new system, everything can be accessed efficiently with the keyboard, helping keyboard aficionados get even more done with just their trusty 101 keys.

Third, KeyTips take advantage of the Ribbon's modality to help save keystrokes in the same way that it helps to reduce mouse clicks.  When you're in a Ribbon tab, you don't have to press the letter for that tab to use the commands within it.  Press the letter for the chunk and command you want directly.  In the same way that you save mouse clicks because all of the table layout commands are on one tab, you save keystrokes as well.

Of course, for those most common keystroke combinations--the ones you intend to memorize--you'll probably want to remember and use the first letter, even though it's not necessary if you're already in the tab.  Doing so ensures that you can use a consistent key combination no matter what Ribbon tab is up.

So, why did we design KeyTips, vs. going with a more traditional "underlined accelerator" approach?  One, the Ribbon is dense, and on some tabs, we would have run out of letters quickly.  Two, we wanted to provide keyboard access to controls regardless of their display state.  This means that even controls without text labels or that are part of a "button set" (like Bold-Italic-Underline) have KeyTips.

I believe it will be beneficial for most keyboarders to use the KeyTips system, especially since it puts virtually everything you can do with Office within a small number of keystrokes.

Type 3: Office 2003-compatible Keyboard Accelerators

Yet, we know you hardcore keyboard elements are out there.  You've got the "ALT+O+H+R" tattoo and you can use Excel with your eyes closed.

While I think even you would benefit from KeyTips is the long run, you'll be happy to know that you can turn on a mode in which all of the keyboard accelerators from previous versions of Office work.  It's as if you're navigating the "phantom" Office 2003 menu system right in Office 12.  We show hints in the status bar to help keep track of where you are and what you've typed.

We know it's important that you can be effective day one with Office 12, and being able to fall back on familiar keyboard accelerators is an important part of that mission.

Conclusion

We designed the Office 12 interface to incorporate a rich set of goodies for keyboard lovers.  There's more I didn't mention (such as using the keyboard to navigate the Ribbon as a 2D document for use with a screen reader), but I believe I covered the essentials.

There's a new mechanism for accessing UI with the keyboard called "KeyTips."  KeyTips provides consistent, efficient access to every control and command in the product.  But, if you prefer, you can continue using the old keyboard accelerators that are burned into your brain.  It's up to you, but I'm hoping the bread crumb trail leads a whole new generation of keyboard newbies to the candy house to try a bite.

(Don't worry, I won't pop you in the oven!).