Microsoft Word 2007: A Word of Caution

Word 2007 offers plenty of new features and enhancements, but is it worth the upgrade?
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At a gala event introducing Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 in January, Microsoft called it the most significant product launch in the company's history ? the first time the company debuted new versions of its two flagship offerings at the same time. Mostly, of course, it was pure hype.

Vista has yet to prove it can solve the most pressing problems that beset its predecessor, Windows XP ? namely security and stability. Office 2007, while it contains some startling visual changes and enhancements that may provide real benefit to some users, is a mixed blessing for anyone heavily invested in previous versions of Office.

With this review of Word 2007, we begin an ongoing series that will look in turn at each of the major components in the new Office suite.

Microsoft's boast with Word 2007 is that it "helps you create great-looking documents more quickly and more easily than ever before." The main way it does this is by radically revamping the user interface, replacing menus and toolbars with a new "ribbon" interface and panels (Microsoft calls them tabs) that stretch across the screen and graphically depict groups of functions. The ribbon interface appears in the major Office modules, including Word, Excel, and Outlook.

New Features in Word 2007

There are a bunch of less-visibly noticeable new features and improvements, including the ability to convert Word files to PDF and XML Paper Specification (XPS) formats within Word, enhancements to spell checking (including the ability to detect contextual spelling errors such as the incorrect use of homonyms), and privacy and security features related to sharing documents, such as the ability to easily remove metadata and personal information before sending out documents.

Microsoft has also created a new file format for Word 2007, Word XML. The new format dramatically reduces file sizes and, because it conforms to XML standards, makes it easier to integrate Word files with other information systems and external data sources. It cannot, however, be read by earlier versions of Word.

By far the most significant change is the user interface. Microsoft says it is intended to make more program functions visible to customers so they can: a) find the ones they already know more quickly and easily, and b) see previously hidden features and begin to use new ones, thereby gaining further productivity benefits.

Insiders mention another reason. The program had become so feature-laden that drop-down text menus would be too long to display in their entirety on some computer screens.

Wins and Losses

The new interface may ultimately be easier to use ? once you've learned it ? and may shave seconds off some document production tasks. But anyone well-versed in previous versions of Word should be aware of the costs involved to reap those benefits.

It's not just the cost in lost productivity while learning a new interface. If you've extensively customized Word in previous versions ? as we had ? those customizations go out the window (so to speak), though you can recover some of them. Macros ? little programs you can write within Word to quickly perform complex or repetitive tasks ? also disappear in the immediate aftermath of upgrading to Windows 2007. Again, you can recover them with a little effort, but many of them will not work if they involve aspects of the interface that have changed.

The worst of it, for people who are very familiar with and who rely upon Word, is that Word 2007 is overall less customizable than previous versions. A simple example: you cannot change the icons on toolbar or tab buttons.

For casual dabblers, though, who haven't done much customization, don't write Word macros and don't intend to start, these problems are of little concern. Microsoft overhauled the user interface for them ? the vast majority. Others can simply choose not to upgrade, or spend the time and effort on recovering or recreating customizations and macros, to the extent possible.

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