Our peek at a prerelease copy of Office 97 revealed some "i"-catching innovations that key in on integration, the Internet and intranets.
-- by Joel T. Patz, Contributing Editor, and James E. Powell, Northwest Bureau Editor
Microsoft seems to spend as much time obsessing about the forthcoming Office 97 as it does the Internet these days. No wonder; Office accounts for more than half of Microsoft's revenue and profit. But take a hands-on, early beta look at this new workhorse--as we did--and you'll see the excitement is justified. We found innovative features, careful attention to making everyday tasks easier, plenty of focus on the Internet and an emphasis on collaboration.
In this incarnation, the popular office applications suite becomes the pivot point in every Microsoft campaign. Although the company will continue to sell standard applications-Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint-as part of Office, it will tailor Web-enriched versions of the suite for home, corporate and computer professional markets. This includes bundling applications, such as Publisher 97 (see the review in Weave a Flawless Web Page ) that weren't in previous editions. Exact combinations and prices were still under discussion at press time.
If you've been using 16-bit Office under Windows 95 or NT, you'll be impressed with the performance gains of these 32-bit applications. But the most compelling addition to Office is Outlook, a powerful new information manager/e-mail package (see A Whole New Outlook , October 1996). It offers workgroup tools best used on networks, but it's also got plenty for the standalone user. You can add items to Outlook from any application, and its excellent integration of mail, calendar and to-dos with office documents is a crowd pleaser.
Not everything coming through the Office 97 window is all light and sunshine. Windows 3.x users have been left out in the cold. And some applications in our beta were extremely raw and could wind up being left out of the initial release. At least some of what you read here could change dramatically before the product makes it to store shelves.
File compatibility, thankfully maintained in the Office 95 upgrade, vanishes with Office 97. Although network administrators can force default saves to older file versions, those in mixed environments will have trouble reading one anothers' files. Saving files to formats compatible with older versions may result in the loss of some of the bells and whistles that will give the upgrade its appeal, so there'll be a real incentive for wholesale migration. Large companies may therefore delay jumping on the 97 bandwagon until the entire organization can move, or until they can establish procedures for handling file incompatibilities. Microsoft representatives say they've laid the foundation for converters to handle transition issues in the future. We'll have to wait and see.
Share and Share Alike
Office 97 applications all share several new modules, reducing the overall code size of the Office applications while adding a previously lacking layer of consistency. With WordArt, for example, you can turn text into eye-catching three-dimensional graphics by filling it with gradient (shaded) colors and a wide variety of patterns.
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OfficeArt, found in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, lets you add and fill shapes, and provides a variety of advanced graphics effects such as adding shadows and setting light sources. It contains more than 100 shapes, from triangles and B...zier curves to arrows and flowchart symbols. Microsoft reps tell us that new connectors, not available in our beta, should let you attach two shapes with lines that stay connected when either shape is moved.
Bob-Like Help and Other Innovations
Microsoft's new animated Office Assistant is a less schmaltzy and more helpful version of the ill-fated Bob interface. It offers a choice of "personalities," from a disdainful cat to a saucy paper clip, and lives in a small movable window on your screen. It offers hints and tips a bit like Office 95's bulb and supports natural-language queries, just as in Office 95's Answer Wizard. The jury's still out on keeping it continually online; you'll either love it or hate it. Fortunately, the window moves out of the way at the appropriate time. You can also turn it off entirely and use the regular help system. At release, you're limited to the nine animated Assistants provided. While you're learning Office 97's new features, it provides a large area to click on for help.
Office-wide, you'll see many changes. The familiar, but confusing, dialog box used for changing toolbars and menus has been replaced by welcome drag-and-drop editing. Toolbars and menus are now almost interchangeable and are combined into what Microsoft calls the Command Bar. You can put buttons on menus and add icons to a menu as easily as to a toolbar. We put an eight-ball icon on the Command Bar to trigger the display of a document's word count, for instance; we could drag it to a toolbar or have it sit beside the menus. Changing the background color of an icon is a no-brainer with the pixel paint tool.
Behind the scenes, applications share toolbars, which consumes less RAM. The Web Toolbar provides standard browser functionality, such as navigating hyperlinked documents, from within applications. Individual toolbar buttons have given way to icons positioned along a smooth gray bar. It gives the Command Bar a cleaner, less cluttered look. A number of new toolbars can either float or be anchored throughout your workspace.
The Office Binder sports improvements, too. Now, in addition to putting in a variety of documents and printing them as a single document, you get print preview and the ability to insert headers and footers across documents. You're still stuck, however, when copying files to the Binder-there's no "link" for live updates.
Visual Basic, Applications Edition (VBA) is now part of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access. Word will convert Word Basic macros to VBA automatically. VBA development has become easier. You can type in the first few letters of a command and have the VBA editor suggest completions for you, which is terrific when you can't remember the property or method name you want to use. Future releases of the product will let you explore the VBA environment in greater detail, including its new project explorer, hierarchical object browser and multipane debugger.
Clip Gallery Live provides an excellent source for new clip art, and is shared by PowerPoint and Publisher.
IntelliSense, Microsoft's term for its warm-and-fuzzy logic interactive help, has been expanded throughout Office 97. A new background, natural-language grammar checker in Word flunked an English test, however. It missed dozens of simple errors, such as "it's performance" and "Do you want to went with me?" Worse, in one case it actually proposed making an incorrect change, suggesting that "both Word and Excel have" should read "both Word and Excel has." Ironically, the explanation had the subject/verb agreement right, but the grammar checker insisted "has" was correct.
Other IntelliSense features showed this technology in a better light. The new Word can analyze a document and automatically produce a hierarchical map of it, which is helpful for navigating long documents. The map relies on headings and subheadings for most of its work, so you'll want to include them to make use of this feature. A nifty AutoSummarize feature, also part of IntelliSense, analyzes your document, then extracts a user-defined percentage of the text, inserting it as an executive summary at the top of the first page. AutoSummarize doesn't create new text-at least not yet. It only extracts entire sentences, but it's an excellent way to boil down long reports.
Several features weren't available in our beta release, including an enhanced network installation wizard, an upgrade wizard that removes all vestiges of previous versions, and a multiple setup option for system administrators to set the installation options for Office 97. And there is still no convenient way to take your settings with you if you have to work on another computer.
Both Word and Excel offer new versioning features to ease workgroup collaboration. Word lets you create versions (and comments) whenever you save a file, then lets you compare versions in a dual-pane view. All versions are saved in the same file, so you won't clutter up your hard drive with a lot of extra "budget.v1" and "budget.v2" files. If two people are working on the same document at the same time, Word offers to incorporate your colleague's changes into your document before you save it.
Excel's new Shared Workbook permits multiple users to work on a spreadsheet at the same time. You can track changes by turning on the Track Changes feature, which uses color-coded cell borders to highlight revisions. If there are several different changes for a single cell, you can select the one you want.
But even these new sharing technologies can't compete with Lotus SmartSuite's workgroup features. SmartSuite's TeamReview and TeamConsolidate are slightly more complex to set up but offer better design and richer features than what we saw in the Office 97 beta. In Lotus Word Pro, for instance, you can view all changes on the same document, then browse them one at a time using the best interface for this task that we've seen to date.
Word shares textured backgrounds from the clip-art collection found in Publisher and PowerPoint, so if you're using Word to create a Web page you can now have a wider variety of options from which to choose. Excel can also use the textures in a variety of places, such as for the walls of a 3-D chart.
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Excel is the new suite's highlight, offering masterful, impressive and useful new changes, and greater power.
Its Format AutoCorrect, the single most useful feature we've seen in a spreadsheet in a long time, watches for 15 of the most frequently made errors. If you see a VALUE! error, or want to trace through a formula, you simply double-click on the cell and Excel shows each formula reference in a different color. It then surrounds each cell (or cell range) in the corresponding color so you can see what's wrong. In fact, you can even change the cell or cell range by dragging the border, called a frame, to surround the proper cell(s). This gives you the choice of either editing the formula directly or simply changing its address, an ingenious solution for making formulas easier to track and fix.
Excel uses colors to help you understand chart ranges. For instance, when viewing a chart within a spreadsheet, you can click on a bar in a chart and watch Excel display a different-colored border around the source cells. That makes it easy to figure out what numbers are plotted where. Again, you can drag the frame to the correct cell range and your chart will be automatically updated. Color is also used for conditional formats; these display a cell in a different color based on rules you set, such as red to indicate a value greater than a maximum limit.
The new AutoCorrect fixes formulas, too. It can add the closing parenthesis to SUM(B1:B4., eliminate double operators (A1++A2), fix incorrect cell addresses (changing 1A to A1) and correct implied multiplication (converting 3(A1) to 3*A1). It can also fix extra decimal points and extra spaces in cell addresses or between numbers. You're always prompted to approve corrections before they're committed. AutoCorrect initiates anytime you begin typing in a cell with an equal sign. Otherwise, Excel assumes you're writing text and leaves you alone.
Natural language makes creating Excel formulas much easier, too. If you have one column named Quantity and another named Price, you can create a formula in a third column by typing =Quantity*Price. You don't have to define Quantity or Price as named cell ranges. Change the heading of the column, say, from Quantity to Qty, and the formulas will change to reflect the new label. Excel's smart enough to combine row and column headings for specific cell names; the intersection of the June row and Sales column automatically becomes "June Sales." If you misspell a term such as Quantity, AutoCorrect does its best to find the term you mean and suggest a correct formula. Its error dialog boxes are also much more helpful than in previous versions.
This Excel release also improves on charting. You can quickly add a data table of values to the base of a chart with a single click on an icon in the Charting toolbar, or gain a quick preview of the chart at any stage of design. Excel 95's Wizard did only the bare-bones charting tasks, leaving it to you to make charts presentable. Now Excel 97 puts formatting options into the Wizard, so you make decisions about how your chart will look as well as what will go into it. If you need to reinvoke the Wizard to edit an already-created chart, you select the chart and click on the Insert Chart button. That's not very intuitive, but it works.
The more extensive new Charting toolbar may be all you'll need to make changes, however. Excel 97 now offers bubble charts and pie-with-pie (to explode a slice into another pie) or pie-with-bar (exploding a slice into a bar chart) graphs. Pyramid, conical and cylindrical 3-D shapes for bar charts are now available. You can also set a time scale axis, and empty placeholders are used if there is no data for a time period. Adding a series to a chart is far easier thanks to the Wizard's new Add button.
Click on any chart object, and Excel pops up a tool tip identifying the object and its properties. Tool tips also appear when you drag a cell to AutoFill a series, and the tip now shows the value it will place in a cell if you release the mouse. Tool tips can also display the row height or column width as you drag the cursor to change the dimension.
Collaboration features get good marks. You can view any worksheet with your own personal settings, such as print, filter and view settings. You can add remarks along with your name to someone else's comments, merge workbooks at regular intervals, and track, accept or reject changes. Cell tips on each highlighted cell explain what changed, who made the change and the time the change was made.
Excel's new data validation lets you define simple input rules without writing code (you can specify range values or list permissible values by choosing options from a dialog box). You can even ask Excel to find andinvalid cells in red.
Excel's developers focused closely on improving the appearance of published charts. You can rotate text at a variety of angles or indent it (instead of using skinny columns). You can merge multiple cells into a single cell, which can also be used to space out overflowing text, or choose Shrink to Fit to adjust the font size automatically so text fits within a cell's dimensions. You can apply gradient fills or graphics to the objects or backgrounds of a chart-a great way to put your company logo on the back wall of a 3-D bar chart.
A reworked preview mode is fully editable, with superimposed page numbers. You can change page-break locations by dragging vertical and horizontal lines on the preview, and move charts and tables to different pages. If you only want to print specific pages, select them while pressing the Ctrl key, set your selection as the print range, and click on the Print icon.
Excel borrows a trick or two from Lotus 1-2-3. If you're using any dialog box that asks for a cell or range address, you can click on an icon to collapse the dialog box to a single row in height, then drag the cursor over the cell range. Press Escape or click on the single row dialog box and it reappears with the range address filled in.
Other features you'll find include calculated fields in Pivot Tables, cell formatting that remains when the table pivots, and increased capacity: 65,535 rows (up from 16,384) and 32,767 characters per cell (up from 255). Multiple undo (to 16 actions, controlled with a Registry entry) is now standard. There's plenty for the Web, too, from setting hyperlinks to cells in worksheets on your intranet to performing Web queries embedded in a sheet.
There's still much room for improvement. The Office Assistant didn't recognize that I was typing month names and suggested I use a fill command to do the work instead, and the directions for filling in the series were confusing. But those are minor gripes for a program that makes great leaps in increasing your productivity.
Just when you thought software had probably reached the pinnacle of its maturity, and that nothing else could possibly be added to a word processor, Microsoft goes and surprises you by sprinkling new innovations throughout Word. A new background spell checker can now look across multiple words to fix errors, such as changing "att he" to "at the." It's also populated with a longer list of corrections for proper grammar, such as converting "should of had" to "should have had." The spelling dictionary has been enhanced with the names of smaller U.S. cities, company names from the Fortune 1000 list and computer terms. It also recognizes that words in uppercase or those containing numbers aren't necessarily errors.
New table borders are easier than ever to use. In fact, once you create a table you can open the Tables and Borders toolbar and use the mouse to draw in additional lines with a line-drawing tool or erase cell borders with the eraser tool. You can rotate text within a cell, set border and shading colors, split a cell in two, even autosum a column of numbers. It's very fast, surprisingly simple to use and addictive.Word shares 150 page borders with Publisher 97. In fact, it shares several Publisher features, including wrapping text around irregularly shaped objects and links that let you flow text between text boxes and across multiple pages (text boxes replace object frames in this version). You can shade text within a paragraph and add double strikethroughs to text, too.
AutoComplete lets you type in part of a word, then pops up a yellow tool tip with a suggestion for completion. For example, when you type Aug, up pops August in a tool tip. Press Enter, and Word replaces Aug with August; then press the spacebar, and Word suggests the current day's date. It's a quick, handy way to insert the current date when you begin a letter.
AutoFormat now respects your number and bullet list formatting. Thus, if your first bullet reads First: Get Facts, your next bullet (Second: Verify Facts) will be formatted identically and automatically. Lists can contain a table, nonindented paragraph or page break between any list elements.
The Styles drop-down box now shows sample text using the style's attributes (font, size, color and so on). However, the font drop-down box does not display the fonts in their actual typeface.
Some of the new features are flashy-literally. You can animate text by adding sparkles or a marquee around the words, cute the first time but of little value. Also questionable: Word's new Letter Wizard. Type "Dear John" at the start of a letter and Word can use the new Wizard to fill in the addressee (from the shared address book), choose a salutation, and select a letter style and page design. The Wizard's offer to assist in creating an envelope is helpful, but otherwise, it's of limited use. Speaking of wizards, you now have the option of skipping steps as necessary.
We've touched on only a few of Word's new features; there are many more. Word can also serve as the text editor for the Outlook Inbox. You can add tool tip-like comments to text; the comments will appear whenever a reader's cursor hovers over the yellow-highlighted text. Find-and-Replace now works with all word forms, a feature WordPerfect introduced over a year ago. If you print labels, you'll appreciate the new custom label and page size options.
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PowerPoint's changes are a mixed bag. Though the company says PowerPoint's new features aim to help the occasional user, little of what we saw in our beta tests hit that target. There are 30 new content templates, for a total of 50. And if you get carried away writing bullets, easily done if you work in Outline mode, the new Expand Slide command can break one slide into many, reasonably logically.
There's new custom animation, so you can animate each object on your slide. While animations still must play sequentially, not at the same time, this is a step in the right direction. Custom animation is built into 10 predefined design templates.
PowerPoint shares a clip-art gallery with Publisher, and uses Clip Gallery Live to retrieve fresh images directly from Microsoft's Web site. Since you can use OfficeArt in PowerPoint, you now have a much richer set of drawing tools for developing your slides. You'll get the same charting capabilities in PowerPoint that you found in Excel 97. In addition, Word contributes automatic spell checking, a drop-down undo/redo history list, and macro recording and playback.
PowerPoint finally has bitmap smoothing, which lets you increase the size of clip-art bitmaps without the usual distortion. And Slide Finder lets you locate slides in other presentations stored on your network and integrate them into your own presentation. When we tried it, however, PowerPoint had trouble switching the background of the imported slides to that of the current presentation.
You can use the new Comments feature to add comments to individual slides; they're viewed in a special window. The Meeting Minder dialog box can remain open during a presentation, a much-needed improvement. Action items can be imported into Outlook, a feature we couldn't test. If you add voice narration, you can turn your PowerPoint presentation into a narrated, self-running demo.
PowerPoint 97's new Custom Shows feature lets you reuse slides. You pick out the slides, and PowerPoint builds them into a new show. That's slick but not well thought out. If one slide in your custom show includes a button to jump to a slide you don't include in the show, PowerPoint won't warn you that you're headed for erratic button trouble.
We'll reserve judgment on the remaining new features, since most were absent from our beta. In other cases, some of the features in the beta version were too underdeveloped to make a fair judgment.
Microsoft says there will be a new Summary Slide maker that can take the titles of selected slides and turn them into bullet points on new slides at the end of your presentation. When the final product ships, you should be able to edit speaker notes from both Slide and Outline views; a new view combining Slide, Outline and Notes should be ready by then. The company also promises smaller file sizes, something we'll look at when the final product ships.
For the occasional user, Software Publishing's ASAP WordPower 95 is still a better choice. If you want more power, however, PowerPoint 97 will be a good step up.
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Simplicity is the new Access' hallmark. Right-clicking in worksheet view lets you add a new field, for example. Type date values and Access automatically changes the field type to date/time. There's a new Hyperlink field type for storing the name of a site or an Office document. The new Query Wizard figures out the joins for you, so end users need only know the fields that are available-Access takes care of linking them as needed.
Filtering is much easier: Just highlight the text you want to find in other records, then click on Filter By Selection, or right-click in the column and choose the value you want to find. Forms now have a Filter By Form option on all fields (though it only returns the first 100 unique values in a drop-down list; otherwise you must check for Is Null or Is Not Null). If you type the more familiar wildcard, Like WIN*, Access changes the query to the syntactically correct Like "WIN*". Filter By Form also has an "Or" tab at the bottom of the dialog box to simplify Boolean searches.
The company says there are several speed enhancements, though we can't confirm these testing a nonoptimized beta product. Forms, we're told, should load 50 percent faster. We found import slow but queries amazingly fast.
While the Access format has changed, you can still edit Access 95 data with Access 97 if you don't add new objects; this solution makes it possible for companies to easily migrate to the new version.
So, Should You Upgrade?
Migration is almost a given if you use Excel. The Excel team has done a great job of preventing errors and helping you solve those you may make. Charting is much improved. Data Validation and Conditional Formatting are exceptional examples of how to build in sophisticated features without requiring confusing programming steps.
Although the features added to Word are less dramatic than those of Outlook and Excel, this version is a definite advance over the current one. Some improvements, such as Word's Letter Wizard, are of minor value, but the ability to use the new word processor as a full-featured e-mail front end for Outlook really shines.
The jury is out on Access until we see the shipping version. Speedier performance is promised, but we don't feel it's fair to judge this product until the beta bugs are worked out.
PowerPoint showed promise in our beta, but the changes are less impressive when compared to the improvements in the other applications. And, to be fair, this application was the least finished of any in our beta.
Office 97 is the first of Microsoft's new Internet generation tools. If you plan to use a corporate intranet, the application's integration with Internet Explorer 3.0, HTML publishing features and automatic generation of hyperlinks should make your life easier.
Office Apps Are Wise to the Web
Ofice 97 offers the concept of a really big office without walls where you can reach out and grab information you need, or offer data to others no matter where they may be. Microsoft combined Web awareness with Office's functionality to make far-off information as close as your corporate intranet or even your local hard disk.
Office's Web smarts go down to the document level. Type an Internet address such as http://www.winmag.com and the application automatically creates a hyperlink to the site. Type an e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Office turns it into an e-mail link that launches your e-mail program when clicked.
Use Microsoft Internet Explorer to surf the Internet or your intranet. Leveraging ActiveX, the environment is so well integrated that you can view Office- or HTML-format documents from within IE. That's especially appealing since it makes Web publishing as easy as saving a document.
Web solutions previously released as add-ons, such as Word's Internet Assistant, are now incorporated into the core product. Select Save from the File menu and you'll find that "HTML" is an option. Office also provides new backgrounds, bullets and horizontal line graphics that you can use in Office documents. If you're new to HTML, a Web Page Wizard will step you through the page creation process.
Word automatically converts and compresses graphics and OLE objects to JPEG or .GIF format (graphics can also be hyperlinks), and the word processor also supports advanced HTML tags, such as scrolling (marquee) text.
PowerPoint's new Web features include 3-D Action Buttons that you can add to slides. The buttons define hyperlinks to Web pages, or other slides or documents. You can export PowerPoint slides as a set of HTML pages, including pages saved as animations. In fact, you can use an animated page as an animated graphic on a Web page.
A new Web feature in Access (which we were unable to test at press time) will let you save Access-generated reports in HTML format. You'll also be able to create Web forms with Access. Access' publish-to-the-Web features can be used with either the Personal Web Server found in FrontPage or with Windows NT IIS. The database system has a new field type called Hyperlink. It can contain a link to any Web site or Office document.
Office 97's version of Excel can publish charts in .GIF format and can import data from an HTML page via a query. Setting up the import process is not for the faint of heart, but Microsoft is working with third-party developers to build some general-use queries that will be available free.
At almost every turn along the Office 97 route, you'll find a Web authoring option. And if the new built-in Web capabilities aren't enough, there's also FrontPage, an application dedicated to building Web pages and sites, and Publisher 97's new Web Wizard (see Weave a Flawless Web Page)--Info File--
Microsoft Office 97
Price: Unknown at press time
Pros: Excel's formula help, color coding and charting; Word's table drawing, improved AutoFormat and AutoCorrect
WinMag Box Score 4.5