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Office gears up for tablet PCs

Microsoft Office 11’s OneNote makes Tablets easier.

Last month, we reviewed a beta version of Office 11 (which is scheduled to ship by late 2003) and focused on Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. In this edition of Windows Advisor, we’ll preview the programs that come with the Professional or Developer versions of the program (FrontPage, Access, and Publisher) as well as explore in detail exactly what OneNote is and what it can do for you.

Access

Almost all of the upgrades available in Access 11 center on XML support, which we’ll discuss later. Other new features include new smart tags, such as AutoCorrect, a new backup feature; better help files for building SQL queries; and a few new developer functions that allow you to better create standalone databases for dissemination to your clients. Beyond that, Access remains the least changed of the professional-level Office programs.

Many improvements are aimed at helping companies develop more powerful business solutions with Access. For example, Access can now import and export XML files using an Extensible Style Language (XSL) scheme to control the translation between Access and XML formats. This helps the user ensure that files going into and out of Access aren’t altered by the import/export process unless the user wants it that way.

To further ensure accuracy, the database program also offers enhanced error checking for circular references and other design errors, an auto-correct tag that will fix errors as they happen, and a new and improved context-sensitive help system. And in an effort to further promote the theme of accuracy and error-checking, the utility boasts a new menu option for making a backup copy of the database while you work, which should prevent information from being lost during a blackout or computer crash.

FrontPage

By contrast, FrontPage boasts all sorts of changes and additions, including a much-improved text and code editor, advanced coding environments for Active Server Pages (ASP) and ASP .Net, and various improved support for scripting languages like VBScript and JScript.

The editor now allows you to select, change, and adjust blocks of code on the fly, something that wasn’t possible in previous versions of FrontPage. You can also view pages simultaneously in a WYSIWYG window as well as the code editor, enabling you to instantly see what effect your changes will have on the final product. The editor also boasts an enhanced QuickTag toolbar, auto-indent functionality, automatic code recognition (for HTML, CSS, XSL, etc.) and external editor support. Microsoft has more or less redesigned the editor from the bottom up. As a result, it’s now a much more user-friendly, efficient, and powerful tool.

FrontPage 11’s Preview toolbar makes it easier to test your work with a variety of browsers via a variety of links. If you have multiple browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla, Opera, etc.) installed on your PC, FrontPage will find them and load your pages into them to make sure everything looks exactly the way it should. And if you choose to use Design View, you can now activate rulers and grids for positioning objects, use DHTML, and integrate Macromedia Flash content into your pages.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve had with FrontPage over the years (and the biggest reason I tend not to use the software) is the program’s inability to resist adding superfluous code into otherwise lean pages. And in the past, if you tried to enter code manually, FrontPage would sometimes decide it didn’t like your formatting and would “break” it. FrontPage 11, though, changes all that. Every time a change is made via the editor, the code is rewritten from scratch, resulting in clean, concise code that loads fast and runs smoothly. Microsoft has finally gotten it right.

Publisher

Other than improvements in the area of Web site creation, (including the ability to create new Web pages or convert existing Publisher files to Web sites) not much has changed in the beta version of Publisher 11. The product does, however, offer improved support for commercial printing, which should enable it to compete with some of the more professional (and expensive) publishing packages out there, at least in low-level printing operations.

The new release of Publisher, unlike Publisher 2002, offers multiple master pages. This means that the user can test changes quickly and easily without losing formats, which could save you time that you’d otherwise spend undoing changes that you’ve decided don’t work with your project. It’s a minor upgrade but, once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without.

OneNote

Though not available in the beta 1 release of Office 11, Microsoft will ship a new application called OneNote as a standalone product as well as with various versions of the Office 11 suites. In a nutshell, OneNote is simply a note-taking application. But it’s also much more than that. The new application boasts the ability to capture, share, and organize all kinds of notes, all from a single location. The product will support handwritten notes via a tablet PC, typewritten notes, audio recordings through a microphone, and even sketches and drawings, letting the user tie everything in together to better collate his research.

The working interface for OneNote brings to mind a tabbed notebook. Each tab along the top of the application represents a section of the notebook and, consequently, a file on the disk. And, the application can be divided into pages, sections, and sub-pages. When you need to access a particular part of the notebook, you just call up the appropriate marked tab. And when you’re ready to integrate all your different notes, OneNote can transcribe and combine everything into one comprehensive file.

One of the nicest features in OneNote is the ability to create audio notes using a Windows Media Audio (WMA) stream through a microphone, which you could use to record a lecture or an interview. And every time you take a note via the keyboard or tablet while recording audio, the program timestamps your file, making a record of the precise moment in the recording at which it occurred. Later, you can access a smart tag next to any particular note and hear the portion of the audio on which you were taking notes, further helping you to tie in what you heard with what you were taking notes on at the time.

Other reasons to upgrade

Microsoft also plans to update and add several other small applications and tools in the various incarnations of the Office 11 suites, including a new Microsoft Picture Library add-on that offers basic image editing such as red-eye removal, resizing, cropping, rotating, and other minor enhancement tools. Document Imaging, first introduced in Office XP, will also be overhauled to include Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to better edit and manipulate existing text in a scanned document. Office 11 will also support Internet faxing, which is hardly a new idea but might be useful when needing to send Word and other documents to friends and clients with an Internet connection.

As I said in part I of this column last month, there are enough major changes and minor additions to Office 11 to warrant Microsoft charging for a new product rather than simply supplying a service pack. 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 upgrade in a few years. Office 11 will offer upgrades to the various included utilities across the board, but it’s up to you whether or not you actually need those upgrades and thus should upgrade now or hold out for the next full version of Office.

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