May 5 - 11, 1998

Alan Zisman

Microsoft's Mac Office 98 and Publisher 98 prove the giant can learn from the little people

Those clever Microsoft software gnomes in Redmond, Washington, keep churning out the upgrades. Here's a look at two of their recently upgraded releases -- Office 98 for Macs and Publisher 98 for Windows.

Mac users have for a long time, and with some justification, felt abandoned by Microsoft. The Macintosh version of the Office suite was stuck at 1994's version 4.2 during a period when Windows users were upgraded twice.

And even worse, the version of Word included in that generation of Office didn't impress. Many users found it slow and bloated, and more like a Windows program than a Mac application.

The new Microsoft Office 98 for Macintosh, however, does it right.

While still a hefty application (reserve 80 megs on your drive for it), it loads much faster than the previous version. Unlike its unlamented predecessor, however, it sports a Macintosh look and feel. For example, like Apple's ClarisWorks, the font menu lists the font names sporting the actual typefaces.

And as is the case with recent generations of Windows word processors, you finally get my favourite addition -- real-time spell checking.

As in Windows Office 97, there's an animated Office Assistant. While the Windows default is a cavorting paper clip, Office 98 offers Max, a personable Mac Classic. In either case, the Assistant watches your actions, and tries to offer helpful suggestions or answer questions written in English. Many people will find the Assistant helpful. If you find it meddlesome, it can be turned off.

While Office 98 includes file format compatibility and similar features to Office 97 for Windows, it offers a few more advanced capabilities. If you're happy accepting Microsoft's defaults, you can install by simply dragging the icon from the CD to your hard drive. Once installed, the program tries to be self-repairing -- if any of its support files are missing or damaged, it notices and automatically reinstalls them.

The package comes with the standard suite components: the Word word processor, Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation package, along with the Internet Explorer Web browser and Outlook Express mail program. There is no Mac version of the Access database program (included in the Windows Professional suite version).

Microsoft is also aiming goodies at business Windows customers.

Many of us end up having to design our own newsletters, brochures, and more. Since 1991, Microsoft Publisher has been aimed at small business users intimidated by the power and features of high-level desktop publishing software. With the new Publisher 98 version, the program has been significantly reworked, focusing more than ever on small business needs.

Publisher has always offered templates and wizards to help build a basic document. This concept has been expanded. In earlier versions, you could only use a wizard to start a document; now you can apply one to an already saved project, making it much easier to change to a new look.

And when you have a look that you're comfortable with, Publisher's Design Sets makes it easy to apply a consistent design to the whole range of business publications, from business cards and letterhead to brochures, leaflets and newsletters -- even to Web pages. Publisher now does a reasonable job of converting your existing brochure into an attractive, multipage Web site.

You can save your company's information -- from name and address to colour scheme and logo -- as a "profile," ensuring that future publications remain consistent. Other nice touches include a new Logo Creation Wizard, and automatic copy fitting -- the font size automatically changes as needed to make sure that all your text fits into your design.

Professional designers will sneer at its automation and lack of precision, but Publisher 98 will make it easier than ever for those of us without graphic training to create attractive business documents. The program is available on its own or bundled with Word and Excel 97 as Microsoft Office Small Business Edition.

It's been popular to dump on Microsoft, attributing the company's success to a combination of bullying and marketing. Office 98 for the Mac and Publisher 98 for Windows are evidence that listening to its customers and producing some first-rate products are also factors.

(If you run Microsoft's Excel 95, however, you can demonstrate that Microsoft is a demonic organization. Open a new spreadsheet, highlighting the 95th row. Press tab, then, with your mouse, click on Help, then About Excel. Simultaneously press the Ctrl, Alt and Shift keys and click on the Tech Support button. You'll see "The Hall of Tortured Souls," no doubt a place where Mac users are doomed to run Microsoft's Word 6.0 through eternity. I'm not making this up!)*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan