Business in Vancouver- ISSUE 606- June 5 2001

Microsoft's Office XP is fine, but not a show-stopper

The high-tech office


Statistics suggest that the vast majority of business computers run one version or another of Microsoft Office. The package, with the MS Word word processor, Excel spreadsheet, Powerpoint presentation package, and more, accounts for 90 per cent or so of the market and provides much of the cash flow that keeps the Microsoft juggernaut running.

While the new-style name of Office XP, released May 31, suggests a revolutionary product, the new version is more of a subtle change of emphasis from its predecessor. It aims mostly to help users learn to make more use of features that have been long built into Office.

Office XP's biggest new feature is built-in speech recognition. Microsoft's version isn't installed by default, however, and is not up to the standards of programs from IBM or Dragon Systems, which are offered with some versions of competitors' office suites.

Users can save Office documents to Web space on Microsoft Network (MSN) Communities, setting their work as either public or private. This is a small step toward the company's .Net strategy and, while free for now, may evolve into a paid service in the future.

This version does an improved job of saving and recovering documents in the event of an application or system crash. An Open and Repair menu item tries to extract as much as possible of the contents from corrupt document files.

Like earlier versions, XP relies on Visual Basic for Applications. This powerful macro language, however, has been misused by hackers to create Office-based viruses. Now it can be turned off, either by individuals or across an entire corporate network.

Also new to Office -- though a longtime feature of Lotus's competitive Smartsuite, for example -- are collaboration features. XP users can now send documents for review by colleagues, who can make comments in the margins. Changes in multiple versions can be merged into a final version. Web-based Sharepoint services can be accessed by members of a team or workgroup.

Another new feature is what's not there: Clippy, the animated paperclip which offered comments (helpful or annoying) in Office 97 and 2000, is gone, though still available through a custom installation. By default, the cartoon character has been replaced by a toolbar strip labelled "Type a question for help." Thankfully, it stays out of the way until wanted.

Other new help features are also available. Office now pops up Task Panes -- panels beside your documents -- in response to many menu selections. I just clicked to open a new document, for example. A Task Pane popped up offering a list of my most recently saved documents, choices for a new Word document or Web Page, or a choice of templates. Other Task Panes pop up with search options, to set formatting options or to view clipboard contents. These make it much easier to choose among up to 24 items that can be stored in the Office Clipboard.

Many users, however, have complained that Word and the other Office applications can be too helpful. Type the number "1" followed by some text and press enter, and Word assumes you want a numbered list and automatically places the number "2." Frustrated users will be pleased that, in the new version, they get a little box beside the number. This is a Smart Tag. Clicking it brings up a chance to turn off the auto-numbering this particular time, turn it off entirely or bring up the dialogue box to set Auto-Correct features. Other Smart Tags appear when Excel users make mistakes writing a formula or when pasting information. One Smart Tag offers handy choices of retaining the original formatting or changing the formatting of pasted text to match the new location.

Microsoft hopes that both Task Panes and Smart Tags will make many of Office's lesser-used features more accessible.

The verdict? Some nice improvements, but no real show-stoppers. Before deciding, however, read next week's column on the politics of XP. What? You didn't think software had politics? Economics, too

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