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A Windows Office 11 preview

Two major new features might-or might not-warrant an upgrade.

Scheduled to ship in mid-2003, the new Office (currently known only as Office 11) adds a new user interface scheme based on the visual style of Windows XP and offers a plethora of new features designed to help Microsoft users take advantage of the latest and greatest technology.

The new offerings includes two groundbreaking features. The most significant change is SmartDocs, a program that will work hand-in-hand with the other components to bring XML (eXtensible Markup Language) technology to the user. This will enable .NET technologies to be brought to users through Office. Also included is OneNote, an application that enables users to take notes through drawing, handwriting, or even audio, if they have the applicable peripherals. This is especially important for tablet PC users. For this preview, we looked at the standard beta version, which might end up being substantially different from the end product.

One key point you need to know before you even consider upgrading to Office 11 is this: Microsoft’s newest offering won’t work with Windows 95, 98, 98 SE, Me, or NT 4. This is a point of consternation with many beta users, but ultimately it’s for the good of the system as a whole. If you don’t have to worry about making a product backward-compatible, you can concentrate on making it more stable and reliable for the current OS, which happens to be Windows XP. (And, yes, it will also run on Windows 2000.) Besides, if you’re still running Windows 95, 98, or one of the other flavors, you’re more than likely already satisfied with whatever version of Office you’re currently running and probably wouldn’t bother with the upgrade anyway.

Excel and Word

Other than the across-the-board XML support, not much will change in version 11 of Excel. But then again, to paraphrase an old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t upgrade it. About the only real change is improved smart-tag handling. The tags can now be linked with actions in specific worksheet cells. For example, you can associate a tag with the price of a specific stock, so when the stock price changes, the worksheet cell (via Excel checking the price from an Internet connection) also changes to match the updated price. The new smart-tag function is a nice bonus to round out an already highly functional spreadsheet.

Next to Excel, Word is probably the least altered program in Office 11 suite. That isn’t to say that there won’t be any improvements or new features in the Office upgrade; there definitely will be. But Word is already an excellent program that boasts a multitude of features, and thus most of the changes in the new version are behind the scenes and involve repairing bugs and glitches that were found in previous incarnations of the word processor.

There are, however, two fairly major additions to Word. The first is something called Reading Layout, which enables users to temporarily make changes to a document (increasing the font size, for example, or reformatting paragraphs) without actually altering the document. When you close Reading Layout, the document returns to normal.

Another new addition to Word is the ability to make certain portions of a given document read-only. For example, if you want your coworkers to only be able to modify a certain portion of a presentation you’re working on, you can instruct Word to “protect” specified parts of the file and leave the rest of the document open to alteration or deletion. This feature would work for contracts as well, letting the user alter only information pertinent to himself, such as dates, mailing addresses, and his signature.

Outlook

Where Excel remains mostly unchanged, Outlook has been completely overhauled and boasts many new features, including a new three-column view style that provides 40 percent more viewing area than previous incarnations, and an overall new look and feel that makes everything just a little bit easier on the eyes. And if you don’t like the arrangements of the program (calendar, mail, contacts, etc.) you can change them around any way you like.

The new Outlook is definitely an improvement, but it will take some getting used to for folks who were intimate with prior versions. Case in point: Microsoft has completely revamped many of the Outlook menus. Things that were located one menu deep, for example, may now be buried under two sets of sub-menus, so keystrokes that you used in prior editions of the program may no longer work; thus you’ll be forced to learn new ones. This isn’t a huge hassle, but it does create a minor inconvenience for users well versed in the old menu layouts and commands.

Outlook will no longer display HTML content by default, which is probably a good thing. You can still view HTML, of course, but no longer will you be shuttled off to some Web site that you didn’t want to visit simply by opening your e-mail. Outlook 11 also contains a new feature called Search Folders. This option lets you save the results of various queries. This is a nice feature if you deal with a lot of e-mail and don’t necessarily have time to read it the moment you receive it. Combined with the aforementioned XML support, these new features will give Outlook a leg up on the competition and ensure that it remains the de facto e-mail client for professional and home users everywhere for several years to come.

Powerpoint

After years of requests by PowerPoint users everywhere, Microsoft will finally include a viewer application so that presentations created with PowerPoint can be viewed by people who don’t have the program. Furthermore, Microsoft will allow free distribution of the viewer, so sending an automated presentation to a client is only an e-mail or CD away. And speaking of CDs, another new option for project distribution is the Package to CD feature (this replaces the clunky Pack and Go option in PowerPoint 2002), which will enable users to create auto-run CDs of their projects.

With older versions of the program, if you wanted to send a presentation on CD, your recipient had to have PowerPoint and know how to access the files on the disc. With the upgrade, all they need do is put the CD into the drive and sit back and watch as your presentation automatically opens on the screen. Another nice feature of PowerPoint 11 is its integration with Windows Media Player, which will allow users to include full-screen video playback and streaming audio or video in their projects.

Should I upgrade?

Though it’s been less than two years since the release of Office XP, there are enough major changes and additions to Office 11 to warrant Microsoft charging for a new product rather than simply supplying a service pack. If you use Outlook or PowerPoint a lot, those changes alone will be enough to nudge you into plunking down the dollars necessary to purchase version 11. If you use Office primarily for Word or Excel, however, and think you can live without XML support and the new OneNote feature, you’ll probably be better off sticking with Office XP and waiting for the next inevitable upgrade in 2005 or ’06.

Next month, we’ll take a look at FrontPage, Access, and Publisher. All three will be available in the Professional or Developer editions of Office 11 and boast several new additions and changes. We’ll also explore in detail exactly what SmartDocs and OneNote are and what they can do for you.

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