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The long-awaited Microsoft Office 2007 is now available in a pre-release beta. A look at the preliminary version indicates some well thought-out changes that may or may not improve productivity, particularly among experienced users. Seemingly every new feature has its advantages and disadvantages, but there are some improvements that are definitely welcome.
A 500-pound gorilla sits pretty much wherever it pleases. But can that gorilla force everyone to upgrade? Microsoft Office 2007, now in public beta release, offers the next rendition of Microsoft's dominant suite and presents improved versions of Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and more.
But will it be worth the upgrade? Our mid-stream evaluation is, admittedly, a mere snapshot in time. But from what we're seeing, the upgrade, while good, may not be enough to entice users to empty their wallets right away.
A Ribbon of Interface
Microsoft claims that Office 2007 is far easier to use because it takes advantage of recent advancements in hardware and software and offers improvements based on the company's usability studies. A lot of that change comes in the interface. Of course, previous Office applications presented a system of menus, toolbars, and dialog boxes, which everyone is now used to.
To try and make features easier to find and minimize on-screen clutter, Microsoft has replaced the traditional menus and toolbars with the "Ribbon," an interface device that presents commands (buttons, icons and options) under a set of tabs.
As an example, Office Word 2007 offers tabs for writing, inserting, working with tables, altering page layout, conducting mailings, and more. Excel, on the other hand, serves tabs for creating worksheets, inserting charts, applying formulas, and more. In theory, only relevant tabs appear when they can support the immediate task at hand. Thus, as an example, Excel's chart commands only appear when you're working with graphs.
Ribbons will likely be easier for novices to learn, but may prove frustrating for experienced users that are accustomed to the original MS Office interface. As it stands, it takes time to learn exactly which commands reside on which ribbons, and, for now, ribbons can't be customized to your liking (WYGIWYG - What You're Given Is What You Get).
While the new interface may or may not improve productivity in the long term, there will definitely be some short-term learning and adapting for everyone. Fortunately, experienced users will still be able to apply familiar keyboard shortcuts.
A great new feature, Live Preview immediately shows the results of applying editing or formatting style changes by simply highlighting text and moving the cursor over an option. This feature will be welcome by all. Office also comes with new options to share data through Office SharePoint Server, which can track the status of reviewed documents.
In a Word
It's appropriate that the most-used application in the Office suite, Microsoft Word 2007, receives the lion's share of new features. Live Preview, mentioned earlier, was seemingly made for selecting and viewing style and formatting changes in Word. The word processor offers new charting and diagramming features that include 3-D shapes, transparency, drop shadows, and other effects, and can change the appearance of text, tables, and graphics to match a style or color scheme.
A feature for our internet age, you can now publish blogs directly from Word to a blog site. A concept called "Building Blocks" may be used to assemble documents from frequently used or pre-defined content, for example, to support disclaimer text, sidebars, cover pages, and more. To track changes, a tri-pane review panel lets you view two versions of a document with clearly-marked deleted, inserted, or moved text.
Tired of swimming against the considerable tide, Microsoft finally gave in and allowed Word to convert its documents into Portable Document Format file (PDF-Acrobat) format files. But there's also a new XMS file format that is Microsoft's response to Adobe's PDF.
A welcome new feature detects and removes unwanted comments, hidden text, or personal information to ensure that sensitive information doesn't escape when documents are published. Word allows you to open and edit older Word files, but saves them in a new file format by default. As you would expect, the new format is not backwards compatible. This is an important consideration if you need to exchange files with others who may not have made the upgrade.
On the Table and a Positive Outlook
On the Table and a Positive Outlook
Outlook's new "Instant Search" feature no longer requires you to leave the main screen to search for information, and can search across multiple folders. There's an integrated To-Do Bar that outlines tasks, and color Categories allow you to personalize and categorize any type of information: e-mail, calendar items, contacts, or tasks, offering a visual way to distinguish items from one another.
Outlook can share a calendar with anyone within or outside of your organization by publishing Internet calendars. If you want, you can flag an e-mail that you want to deal with later, and the program will add it to your list of tasks.
To help protect against e-mail that's "phishing" for data, Outlook offers an improved junk e-mail filter and features that disable links and warn you about threatening content within e-mail messages. Finally, the program can read and manage Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and blogs, and allows you read the latest news and feeds from within Outlook.
On to PowerPoint and Access
There are relatively few new features in PowerPoint that can be considered must-haves. You can create relationship, workflow, or hierarchy diagrams from within PowerPoint 2007 and convert bulleted lists into diagrams. When used with Office SharePoint Server, PowerPoint can store individual slides in libraries that others may use in their presentations. You can now add digital signatures to PowerPoint presentations as well, to ensure the integrity of the files, or mark a presentation as "final" to prevent inadvertent changes.
Access's automatic data detection allows the program to recognize whether data is currency, a date, or other common data types. There are new field types such as attachments and multi-value fields that allow you to attach any document, image, or spreadsheet to any record. And with a multi-value field, you can select more than one value (for example, assign a task to more than one person) in each cell.
Office Access 2007 does a better job of showing how data will appear in a report as you work with it. This new WYSIWYG interface displays how a report will look without having to actually run it. New features also allow you to better track records and see who created, edited, and deleted records, as well as roll back data edits.
While it's subject to change, the latest beta of Office 2007 offers innovations that indicate that Microsoft is willing to change and evolve with the times. There are certainly aspects to like. But whether the changes will improve productivity in the long run is hard to determine. Certainly, in the short term, all users, including experienced ones, will have to take some time to learn the new interface.
This article was first published on WinPlanet.com.