Microsoft Office 10 beta 2

Version 10, as it is currently code named, is due out some time this year - Microsoft has yet to announce the exact date - and will probably be the last boxed version of Office. Its design is intended to move users towards Office.net (accessing software over the Web) by streamlining Web services more closely into applications. This version of Office will also be the first to use an annual subscription model for licensing - sort of like software rental that has to be paid every year - but a Microsoft spokesman assures us that individual consumers will still be able to buy a boxed version that doesn't need to be renewed annually.

We reviewed the beta 2 pre-release version of Office 10 to see how its components are shaping up.

Interface and usability

How dramatically different version 10's interface seems to you depends greatly on how old your current version of the suite is. Users of Office 2000 will notice some differences; users of earlier versions will see more changes. The applications in the Office 10 beta are Word, Excel, PowerPoint, FrontPage, Access, Outlook, Publisher and SharePoint. While the others are updated versions of existing applications, SharePoint is a new one designed to help teams of people to collaborate on projects by using a common customised Web site to share information, schedules and group discussions.

Office 10 incorporates the expanding menus seen in the latest releases of Windows. Here, less frequently used menu items are hidden. Double-clicking on a menu item, such as File or Edit, causes the whole list to expand. This may seem an irrelevant feature, but when you use it every day it will definitely speed up your workflow.

Three useful changes to the interface stand out. First, there is the Task Pane, which is similar in appearance to the task wizards used by Works. Task Pane provides views of common tasks across a range of options, including creating and saving files, formatting text, pasting multiple items from the clipboard and searching.

The latter is probably the most important addition, as it enables Boolean searches for files across your hard drive (these are powerful searches incorporating conditions such as "word1 AND word2 NOT word3"). There is also a quick search dialogue box on the menu bar, so you can search the Help files quickly and easily.

The second change to the Office interface is the addition of Smart Tags, which are an extension of the existing Tool Tips feature. When you make a mistake (such as entering the wrong formula in Excel), or perform certain predefined actions (for example, entering a date in Word), Smart Tags provide a quick indication of what your options are at that point.

What's more, when correcting certain mistakes, an Auto Correction tab appears with a list of context-sensitive options. This enables you to change text formatting or prevent e-mail addresses being formatted as links, for example. This is a potential boon for those who have been annoyed by Word's tendency to do certain things automatically, even when you don't want it to.

Free speech

The third impressive change is the addition of the L&H translation engine by the makers of the popular Dragon range of voice recognition products (although this does not appear in every application). The Premium version of Office 10 includes four language CDs, with French, German, Spanish and Italian being installed by default. It will not translate your deathless prose (or spreadsheets, for that matter) with the literary brilliance of Proust, but anyone who has to deal with multilingual documents will soon wonder how they managed without this feature.

Another addition to Office - in which Microsoft has played a catch-up game with competitors Lotus and Corel - is the inclusion of voice-recognition software. Again, this relies on technology developed by L&H. We are somewhat ambivalent about this addition: processor speeds and cheap memory mean that such software is becoming usable, but you still need to spend time training your PC to recognise your voice.

Office 10 represents the continuing evolution of the Office suite with a couple of revolutionary items thrown in for good measure. Experienced users will find that the changes help to improve usability, while Microsoft has worked hard to make the suite simple for newcomers. What, then, of the applications themselves?

Word, Excel and Outlook

Word obviously benefits greatly from the new translation features, but there are also some minor features that will aid day-to-day tasks. For example, holding and dragging the mouse across the document lets you select multiple sections of text, while the Format pane shows font styles and sizes for any part of the document selected.

Modifications to Excel include e-mail and search buttons added to the standard toolbar. Smart Tags come into their own with this application, as they can be easily used to control and modify errors in Excel formulas.

Excel's Web functionality has been greatly improved. Applications in this release employ XML (extensible markup language) for dynamic formatting of pages. In terms of Excel, this means that PivotTables can be published to the Web (although these are only readable with Internet Explorer 5.5).

Web queries have also been enhanced, so that data can be accessed and analysed from the Web more easily within Excel. Want to check the performance of your shares with real-time data? Simply use the Dynamic Shortcut Button to paste a refreshable query into a cell.

Outlook has been extended, becoming the means by which application documents are communicated. The Digital Dashboard lets users access information whether it is on the hard drive or the Web, and Microsoft has also integrated Hotmail and MSN Messenger. You can set up Outlook to use multiple e-mail accounts, and even specify which account to use when replying to messages.

Some changes should have appeared earlier, such as autocomplete for addresses (a long-standing feature of Outlook Express) and you can now move offline or online without restarting the program. An interesting change to the scheduling portion of Outlook is its ability to set up recurring appointments using the Lunar Calendar which is used by some countries.

Access, PowerPoint and FrontPage

Apart from the addition of voice recognition, there are no ground-breaking changes to Access. As with Access 2000, data can be shared dynamically using XML (which can now be transferred into and out of Excel). A feature called My Data Sources has been added, which means you can track connections to databases more easily.

Modifications to Power-Point include a print preview and the ability to create a presentation using more than one template. Encryption has been added to help protect your PowerPoint data from unauthorised access, and to improve security there's now a stronger CryptoAPI algorithm in PowerPoint, Word and Excel.

Changes to FrontPage are designed to provide immediate access to information. Although we prefer editing packages such as Dreamweaver or GoLive for professional publishing, FrontPage offers a huge amount of help and the interface is intuitive. You can now add autoshapes, text boxes and WordArt directly into pages, and the application's publishing capabilities have been improved, too.

Publisher has received a number of small improvements, such as the ability to open multiple publications simultaneously, but the major changes involve the integration of the new Office interface features such as the capabilities of the Task Pane.

Microsoft has obviously thought long and hard about the interface and usability of Office 10. The additions and improvements we've covered only scratch the surface and, with Office.net on the horizon, there will soon be greater dynamic Web capabilities using XML.

The speed and stability of the beta release was impressive - it seemed to load quicker than Office 2000. When the final product appears next year, it will offer an enticing prospect for users looking to upgrade.

Microsoft Office "10 beta 2

Price: $TBA

Supplier: Microsoft

Phone: 13 2058

URL: www.microsoft.com

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