Office XP will transform the way you work

Office 10, Office XP, Office Whistler. Call it what you will, the main thrust behind Microsoft's latest Office incarnation lies in the high amount of complaints users have fired at the company regarding previous versions of the flagship product. We take a look at the first beta, and see if it looks likely to transform the way your office works.

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By  Robin Duff Published  April 5, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|Office 10, Office XP, Office Whistler. Call it what you will, it is most likely to end up being called Office 2002. The main thrust behind Microsoft's latest Office incarnation lies in the high amount of complaints users have fired at the company regarding previous versions of the flagship product.

One 'issue' in particular, which is likely to be raised in advance of the latest release looks to be Microsoft's decision to make registration compulsory, the argument being that piracy will be easier to spot. If you decide that you can't be bothered registering, the applications in the new version will work a maximum of 50 times, before an annoying 'register now' field appears.

Also new is the stipulation that instead of buying an unlimited licence, buyers will be offered a new one year subscription service with renewals available through a local retailer or via the Internet. If you don't renew your subscription, Edit and Save will be disabled. The Custom Installation Wizard has been enhanced, program-changes-wise, which will enable network administrators to customise the elements of Office 10 to be installed on the user's PC.

The user interface of Office 10 is very similar to Office 2000, except that the menus toolbars and status bars look flatter. Menu items and tools now grow a blue box when the mouse pointer rolls over them, which stays when a tool is selected. The main Office applications now have an option to display or hide their documents in the task bar. Choosing the latter option returns to true MDI (Multiple Document Interface) as in Office 97.

The SDI (Single Document Interface) of Office 2000, where every document has its own menus and toolbars, is also available. Looking at this first beta, broadly, Microsoft has some good ideas here, and usability has certainly been improved: more features have been added to applications essentially, which should keep all you Office users out there very happy.

||**||Taking the "pane" out of everyday tasks|~||~||~|When you start any of the applications for the first time and create a new file you'll notice one of several user interface improvements. Called a Task Pane, the Office applications now take the right-most fifth of your screen (but you can close it) to display a list of common tasks you might want to do based on a command you've issued or action you've taken. For example, choose the File/New command in Word and the Task Pane displays several options: create a new blank document, Web Page, or e-mail message; create a new document from an existing one; view your most recently opened documents; or open a template (on your hard disk, Web sites, or Microsoft's Web site).

The right pane isn't just for task shortcuts. It's now an excellent way to view and control formatting. Click on a new toolbar button and the Styles and Formatting pane appears. It can show you which formats are available or which are used in your document. You can also see all styles presented in close to WYSIWYG mode (using the proper font and font size, indentation, and so on). Click a pull-down option from the Styles and Formatting pane and you'll see a list of formatting options already in use, grouped by Font, Paragraph, and Section.

This is one way Microsoft makes it easier to find the formatting options you need most. In part, it's an answer to WordPerfect's Reveal Codes, but it lacks WordPerfect's ability to quickly remove a font format change; in Word you still have to choose the font you want rather than defaulting to the font used in surrounding text. While hovering over text in Word 2000, a small window popped up to display the formatting properties, the Formatting Properties pane actually lets you make changes. There's more to Formatting Properties - you can compare one text selection to another and the pane displays the formatting differences. For example "Bold -> Not Bold" means the original text is Bold but your second selection isn't. The Formatting pane can also take you through a six-step mail merge Wizard that's simpler to use than previous versions.

Using new tags
Not every menu command comes with a Task Pane. Instead, Word and Excel offer another way to display shortcuts, tips, and options so you can get your work done faster. For example, copy a section of text from one section of Word to another and the program adds a small icon (called a Smart Tag) at the end of your copied text. Click on this icon and you'll get a pull-down menu offering you several formatting options (such as asking if you want text only or want to automatically format the copied text to match the surrounding text). In Excel, if you type "January" in a cell and then drag the mouse to other cells (to fill them automatically with "February," "March," and so on) a Task Pane pops up and asks if you want to do a series fill, just fill with the values but not formats, and so forth.
The same options offered by Smart Tags are available from the menu system, but they are so much more convenient when placed as a small icon within the text itself. The Smart Tag is right where you need it, and requires fewer clicks than if accessing the same command through the menu system. Smart Tags don't get in the way: they disappear when you perform another task. Smart Tags also help you work with Internet content. For example, enter a stock symbol in an Excel spreadsheet and a Smart Tag offers options to view the current price (from MoneyCentral), view a MoneyCentral company report, or refresh the quote. Microsoft will include a toolkit for extending Smart Tags, so we may find third parties creating custom tags you can download and install from their Web sites.

More control
AutoCorrect can frustrate you. For all the times it changes "teh" to "the", it refuses to let me correct some of its corrections without a hassle. For example, if you type "Dubai, U.A.E. is my favorite city", previous versions of Word insist on capitalising the "i" in "is" because of the full stop after "U.A.E." while Word 10 will do the same, hover over the new capital "I" and you'll see a small blue bar underneath it. Click on the bar and a pull-down menu offers several options.

||**||Other new features|~||~||~|Word has had timed automatic backups for some time, and now Excel and PowerPoint are so equipped. In the past you could set the backup interval too long and lose crucial data. In Office 10, if a crash occurs in any of these three applications, a dialog box will pop up and offer to recover your data and restart the application. Optionally, if you have a live connection to the Web, you can tell the application to submit details about the crash to Microsoft (to help them track problems), and if you're reporting a recognized bug, your browser will open and point to the relevant Knowledge Base entry, a feature we weren't able to test because Beta 1 was remarkably stable. Still, it would be good to see Document Recovery extended to FrontPage. Previous versions of Word and Excel have document password encryption options, and now PowerPoint does, too. In addition, you also have the opportunity to use a new, stronger CryptoAPI algorithm. By default, the previous algorithm is the default for backward compatibility.

The Office Assistant (that animated paperclip that many, including myself, find too cute and awfully annoying) is no longer turned on by default. Best of all, to the right of the menu is a small Answer Wizard box for entering free-form questions in plain English.
Instead of searching for help, perhaps you're searching for files. The new Search feature, implemented as a Task Pane, has been greatly enhanced. Besides entering the text you want to find, you can restrict the search by file type, look in properties use Boolean connectors ("and" and "or"), and specify where you want to search (down to choosing multiple folders and even looking through Outlook). When you choose to send a document via e-mail, you're now offered an introductory field- you don't have to change the body of your document just to add a few short opening remarks.

The Drawing toolbar, consistent across the applications, now offers a Diagram option that lets you add org charts, circle, Venn, radial, target, or pyramid diagrams, with a few options for each (you can easily add co-workers, subordinates, or assistants to a position on an org chart, for example). Microsoft says Office 10 will support speech in two ways: dictation of text and spoken control of the menus. The company is using its own speech engine, but we didn't test the feature at this time.

Teamwork
Office 10 also puts the spotlight on helping teams work on the same document. The new "Send to Mail Recipient (for Review)" enables these new features. When a document is sent, the correct reviewing tools are enabled. That is, when a co-worker opens your document, Track Changes is already on. After the document is edited and sent back to you via e-mail, Outlook recognizes it's a "reviewed" document and asks if you want to merge it with your original. The new Reviewer's toolbar includes tools for viewing changes by a specific reviewer, stepping through each change (or accepting everything from a reviewer). If you're reviewing a Word document, changes are represented by call outs in the right-hand margin, identifying the who and what (plus comments) of each change. This approach makes for a less messy screen.

||**||Application-specific changes|~||~||~|What's Special in Word?
Word 10 will ship with English, French, and Spanish language packs. You can now translate a word or selected text. Version 10 allows digital signatures on documents, indicating which documents haven't been tampered with since they were signed. A number of changes have been made to tables: you can copy tables using drag and drop and sort by last name, then first name if a name appears in a column.

Excel improvements
Several Excel changes in Office 10 are particularly welcome. If you make an error in an Excel formula, a green triangle appears in the corner of the cell alerting you to the problem. If you use the SUM function and select a contiguous group of cells that doesn't abut the cell to contain the total, Excel warns you that your selection may not be correct and offers to examine your worksheet and suggest a different selection. When you enter the equal sign and a function, Excel now pops up a ToolTip that lists all the variables. As you type a comma to separate each value, the next value is made bold so you'll always know which variable you're entering.

In the beta we tested, the current variable appears as a link, but clicking on it goes nowhere. Presumably, clicking will provide help on that variable. Editing an Excel file on the Web preserves more Excel features. For example, colours, fonts, and data validation will be functional. Also new: support for XML. You're able to load and save XML data into Excel and you'll be able to run queries on the data. Finally, a new border drawing tool lets you drag your mouse around a range of cells and insert a border of the colour and style you select.

Outlook is brighter
Outlook sports several new features you may like. If you're invited to a meeting but can't attend, a new option lets you suggest alternative times (the schedules of the other attendees is displayed to help you select a good time). If you're in Word and enter a name, a Smart Tag appears that can automatically add the contact's address to your document from Word. There's a single reminder window, so your screen won't be cluttered with one window per reminder. The interface also lets you dismiss one or more reminders, choose the Snooze option, or view a reminder. Another e-mail improvement: you can access multiple mailboxes, including MAPI- and POP-3 services. That includes HotMail, for example. Other improvements are rather minor or catch up to other Microsoft products. For example, there's autocomplete for e-mail addresses and the ability to set the colour of the appointment.

Powerpoint
PowerPoint has lacked what just about every other application in the world has: Print Preview. That's remedied in this release. You'll now be able to print presentations with comment pages. You can add a variety of animations and preview them. It's a very easy interface. Some minor but useful user interface improvements include the ability to apply slide transitions without leaving the slide editing view, a choice between outline and slide thumbnails in Normal view, and finer control over effects (such as path animations).

||**||Application-specific changes (continued)|~||~||~|FrontPage
The changes here aren't extensive. You can create thumbnail images of selected graphics files and create a photo gallery page. You can now add AutoShapes, text boxes, and Word Art to a Web page. Other feature enhancements include the ability to edit table borders with a new Border button, split tables, or fill rows and columns (as you can in Excel). The Publish Web dialog box shows you which files will be published, with potential file conflicts highlighted.

Access
The critical new feature: Access now supports Pivot Tables, so you no longer have to export your data to Excel and create the table within a spreadsheet. Other improvements? Access now supports XML, supports multiple undo and redo in Design view, offers a new form-level OnUndo event, and several new report properties (including PopUp, AutoResize, and AutoCenter) now work the same way as they do in forms. Some additions to Access' programmability include AddItem and RemoveItem methods for combo and list boxes, BrokenReference (a property that detects if your project has a broken reference), and CompactRepair method for database maintenance.

Still several holes, however
Some of the new features don't quite make the grade. Word adds a new Word Count taskbar. Unfortunately, you have to "Click Recount to view" the word count- it doesn't automatically update the word count after, say, 10 seconds of inactivity. This doesn't offer much convenience over typing Alt+T, W. Another nice idea that's not fully developed is the Watch Window in Excel.

Whether cells are on the same sheet, on a different sheet in the same file, or in another file on your hard drive or network, the new Watch Window lets you keep track of the current value of selected cells- as long as the file(s) are open. Close a file and the watch variables from that file disappear, and they don't magically re-appear if you re-open the file. The Watch Window is helpful, but it's still a diamond in the rough. Furthermore, getting the Watch Window to appear in the first place is an overly long process. It's not complicated; it just takes navigating down several levels in multiple menus. Some shortcuts still aren't as "discoverable" as they should be (and Microsoft probably thinks they are). The File/New Task Pane is an attractive, well-organized replacement to the File/New tabbed dialog box of previous versions.

Microsoft hasn't addressed all the applications' shortcomings, either. For example, if you manually set up an envelope in Word and select the Print command, everything is OK unless you have problems (the envelope jams, the printer runs out of ink - you name it). In this case, you have to re-enter the delivery address. That makes for one more tedious task.

We expect many of these problems to be sorted out by the time the second beta comes round, however.
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