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Killer apps and a few glitches
Priyanka Joshi in New Delhi
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January 15, 2007

It's 2007 and Microsoft wants you to upgrade, literally. The beta version of Office 2007, which I used, seemed as if the Redmond-based giant has managed the unexpected -- a redesign of Office applications.

Microsoft fights back

Office 2007 is a crucial launch for the company because the Office suite is Microsoft's cash cow, second only to its Windows operating system. In the wake of fierce competition from open-source and web-based rivals, the update is touted (by Microsoft) as a "killer app".

It is no overstatement that the future of the company hinges on the success of these two products. office productivity suite, a free and open source alternative to Microsoft's dominant Office suite, looks like Microsoft Office, acts like Microsoft Office, and is compatible with Microsoft Office. It may look more primitive than Office 2003, but is a viable alternative for cost-conscious individuals and organisations.

Bells and whistles

From the highly touted ribbons that offer clearly labelled buttons to thumbnail previews of most graphic features, the Office applications bear little resemblance to their former selves.

It can be obvious or confusing, depending on your level of experience with previous Office versions. It is the most innovative user interface work Microsoft has unleashed. Word 1.0 came with approximately 100 commands.

Twenty years later, Word 2003 packed in over 1,500 commands, bloating the menus and toolbars. The new user interface is convoluted with task panes and smart tags help in easy access to these functionalities. Microsoft Word is still Microsoft Word and yet, virtually everything has changed.

The main construct of the new Office user interface is the ribbon, a panel at the top of every application instead of staid menus and toolbars. The ribbon has been designed exclusively for each Office application to expose commonly needed commands in a logical fashion.

For example, when you first launch Word, you will be confronted with commands related to fonts, paragraphs, styles, editing and the clipboard because that's what most people need. Commands are divided into logical groups that expand and contract as the Office application window is resized.

But there are also contextual tabs that only appear when needed. So, if you insert a table in Word, you will see a Table tab appear only when the table is selected. Good logic.

The graphics engine that powers PowerPoint slides and Excel graphs has been extensively updated and modernised and made common across all applications in the suite.

The Office Professional Plus (offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Publisher, Office Communicator, InfoPath, and server-based content management) will cost around Rs 18,250 (approx) and the Office Standard (this version is the lowest-end mainstream Office version and includes Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint) is priced at Rs 14,000.

A few glitches

By default, Word 2007 saves documents in the new XML-based ".docx" format instead of the proprietary ".doc" format. A few ".docx" files I configured to ".doc" and sent to acquaintances were nothing but gibberish to them.

The new file format when opened in Office 2003 asks users to download a conversion programme (a step needed only once). If you answer yes, you will be linked to a Microsoft page where you can download a 26.6MB "Compatibility Pack."

Download and installation took over 20 minutes even with a broadband connection. One advantage is that files are smaller, saving both hard disk space and network bandwidth requirements.

I found the hybrid user interface unimaginative. The Auto Account Setup did not seem to work (at least not yet) on IMAP or POP3 accounts. That could be because of the mail services I access, or because it's just not ready yet in Beta 2. Microsoft, take notice.

Microsoft has added Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to Outlook 2007. The smart thing here is that both Internet Explorer (IE) 7 and Outlook 2007 will use the same RSS engine and data store. So if you use both then you can subscribe to a feed in IE 7 and view the feed posts in Outlook 2007 (or vice versa). The back-end data store is the same.

The verdict

Yes, it's a welcome change and has the potential to warm a few Microsoft critics, Mac and Linux lovers. For users new to Office, who stumbled on menus and a conglomeration of options spread across many dialog boxes in the 2003 version, the attractive user interface will probably make learning the applications easier.

Advanced users who are accustomed to customising interfaces might grumble a bit about having to to adjust, but all in all, it looks a good start to 2007.

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