I use Word 97 at work, and over the years I've developed a detailed appreciation of its many faults - the obnoxious paperclip, the lousy Australian dictionary, the total failure of the "Set language" option, and other annoyances. All of these faults, and more, have been fixed in this latest release. Microsoft claims to have based the changes in Office XP on extended consultation with end users, and from the evidence, this claim is well-founded.
Almost every operation is simpler, smoother, prettier and better-integrated than in previous versions. This is not to say that the suite is perfect - the registration requirement is annoying, and no doubt a number of bugs and security issues will turn up, as they always do - but in this release, the software giant has produced a business suite that is easy and fun to use.
Making it easy
The basic thrust of this new version is to concentrate on improving access to existing features, although it does add some new ones. By giving you more information about what you can do at any given point, Office XP makes it easier to use the powerful capabilities that were previously hidden in a wilderness of submenus and obscure Help entries. This improved accessibility is provided through three main features: Task Panes, Smart Tags, and an improved Help system.
By default, when you start up an Office XP application, a Task Pane appears on the right of the screen. This contains links to commonly used tasks, such as creating a new blank document, opening one of a selection of previously used documents, or starting one from a template. The Task Pane also provides a range of options when you select tools like Translate or the Office Clipboard. The Clipboard Task Pane is particularly useful - it shows images or summaries of objects that have been cut or pasted into the Clipboard, allowing you to choose easily from up to 24 different items to be pasted. You can opt not to see Task Panes at startup.
Smart Tags are another new feature in Office XP. These are context-sensitive buttons that pop up when you move your mouse over certain predefined types of information, such as names or addresses. Clicking on the Smart Tag produces a menu of things you can do with the tagged item - if it's a name, for instance, you can choose to send e-mail, add the person to your contact list, or schedule a meeting in Outlook.
Word's AutoCorrect function is made more user-friendly by Smart Tags that allow you to undo an unwanted change, or even tell the program not to make similar changes in future. Paste operations in all Office applications activate a Smart Tag that lets you choose what kind of formatting you want to apply to the pasted item - very useful when cutting and pasting between different document types.
The concept of Smart Tags - to recognise a particular pattern within a document and to present you with a list of possible actions to perform on it - can be extended further. Microsoft provides a Developers' Kit for those who want to devise their own Smart Tags. An example given by Microsoft is a Smart Tag that would be able to link you to information about a customer, previous orders, prices, and availability of stock whenever you type an order number into Excel.
Like Task Panes, Smart Tags can be disabled easily if they don't suit your style of work - Microsoft seems to have learned its lesson from the angry public reaction to the tenacious Office Assistant paperclip, which could only be removed by a tedious process of finding and unticking multiple menu boxes. Speaking of Clippy, he still appears by default, but no longer directly in front of where you're trying to work, and you can rid yourself of him just by ticking one box.
Office XP also offers an improved Help function that lets you type keywords or a question into a space in an application's toolbar. Answers are provided on the right of the screen, while the main application resizes itself to fit neatly next to the Help window. This means you can easily follow the instructions without having to switch windows between the background and the foreground. Links to further sources of help on the Web are also provided.
New and improved
Accessibility has been emphasised in Office XP and many features have been added or upgraded. These include voice and character recognition, as well as the ability to recognise handwriting (as used in handheld devices). You can also translate text in Word into other languages - although this appears to work more successfully translating one word at a time rather than whole phrases and sentences. While none of these technologies is yet perfect, and voice recognition is currently only available for US English, they can be quite useful depending on the circumstances.
Continuing the trend of integration, the applications work together more closely - for instance, the document revision feature of Word has been integrated with Outlook, allowing you to circulate a document to a mailing list for comments and suggestions, then merge selected changes into final copy, all from within the e-mail application. Outlook itself is integrated with Instant Messenger, so that when you are reading e-mail, you can see whether the sender is online and, if so, begin a chat session from the tool bar. There are many other instances of Office applications working more closely together, especially through the use of Smart Tags.
Another interesting feature is Excel's floating Watch Window, which lets you keep track of selected statistics while you work. This can be combined with the improved Web update function to produce a live stock ticker, or used in conjunction with a spreadsheet to help optimise a particular figure.
Among a host of minor improvements are a "New from this file" function which helps prevent accidental overwriting of original documents, a Reveal Formatting command in Word, enhanced ability to find useful functions in Excel, and colour coding in the Outlook Scheduler.
Let's work together
Among the improved tools for collaboration is a more sophisticated way of dealing with files that are requested by more than one person at a time. Instead of simply letting you make a copy of the affected file, Office XP will keep track of changes you make and, when others have finished using it, allow you to merge your changes with the original. Other enhancements include the ability to see whether a colleague is online, free or busy through Outlook.
Another boon to cooperation is Sharepoint, a set of ready-made templates for common group functions on a private Web site. These are integrated with Office XP components and include services such as discussion forums and surveys, providing an application that is ready-to-use out of the box. However, a copy of Windows 2000 Server is required to run Sharepoint.
Of course, not all is perfect in the brave new world of Office XP. Like any complex product, it has its problems, some of which are technical and some of which are caused by policy. The most obvious of these is the Registration Wizard, which is being adopted into more Microsoft products. A maximum of 50 program launches is allowed before compulsory registration with Microsoft is required, with each launch of one of the Office components starting the reminder dialogue box.
This is designed to prevent piracy, but since serious pirates may be able to disable the Registration Wizard, it's doubtful whether it will achieve anything more than to annoy legitimate users. One silver lining is that the End User License Agreement allows the installation of one extra copy on a portable computer.
XP will be the first version of Office to be available on a subscription basis - probably with a yearly rental fee. While this may please some people as a way of saving money, others may be disturbed by the idea that a vital productivity tool is outside their control. For the moment, at least, you still have the option of buying the product outright.
Then there's the security issue. In the wake of threats such as the I LOVE YOU worm, Microsoft has tightened up its applications a bit, but security is a constant race between hackers and programmers, and new vulnerabilities are likely to appear for each one that is patched. Microsoft's philosophy of allowing powerful scripting functions built into the operating system to be accessed by applications is likely to be a continuing source of trouble in this regard.
All in all
Despite the niggles, Office XP proved easy to install and a delight to use. Its backwards compatibility with Office 2000 and most Office 97 components means that upgrading won't cause file transfer problems, as it has with some previous versions. I may even put up with the Registration Wizard in order to use this fine tool.
Microsoft Office XP Professional with FrontPageComponents: Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft FrontPage, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, supplementary tools and utilities Minimum system requirements: Pentium 133 or better; Windows 98, Me, NT4 or 2000; 24 to 64MB of RAM depending on operating system; minimum 245MB hard drive space; CD-ROM drive; 800 x 600 VGA monitor. For some options, the requirements are greater.
Price: Full $1679; Upgrade $1180; Phone: 13 2058 URL: www.microsoft.com.au