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Office 2007: A Great Upgrade

Office 2007 is the other half of Microsoft’s (MSFT) blockbuster release slated for Q1 of next year.  Like Windows Vista, there’s a lot of new user interface here, and it’s generally well thought out, and an improvement over prior versions of Office. Throughout Office, there are “look and feel” differences everywhere — layout, color schemes, and default fonts have all changed — giving the applications suite a new and fresh feel.

 Outlook toolbar

The most immediate change people will see is that applications now sport a new tabbed menu / toolbar, replacing the previous stacks of toolbars. Shown above is the Outlook message menu.  The message tab tells you that you are working with the messaging features, as opposed to text formatting.  Grouped along the message tab are all of the common messaging functions.  As you expand or contract the window, the information show on the tab expands or contracts correspondingly.  The common file functions (save, print, save as…) are all grouped to the left, accessible by clicking the circle with the Office logo in it, or by clicking one of the “classic” icons grouped at the top left.

In general, this is an immensely useful improvement, giving access to many application’s functions with a single click of the button.  It comes with a price — getting used to the fact that items have shifted. Microsoft has broken the 20 year old menuing conventions of File / Edit, and many users are going to have a tough time getting used to that. It’s also a little confusing in that Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Access all rely exclusively on the new menuing system, while Outlook uses it for message windows, but not on the main menu, and Publisher and InfoPath are exclusively classic menus. 

Outlook, which I practically live in, has changed little in terms of core functionality.  The biggest single reason to upgrade, in my opinion, is the new To-Do bar.  As I’ve written previously, a series of small changes have turned this feature from a useless toy into a powerful personal organization tool. There are many small changes in Outlook as well, including subtleties like the “Who is…” context menu.  Select a name in an email message, click “Who is…” and Outlook will check to see if it can find that person in your contact list.  Useful, but even more useful would have been to bundle in Anagram.  The many small and cosmetic changes in Outlook are appealing.  Alone, they may not be a big incentive to shell out money for Outlook 2007, but when combined with the To-Do bar, upgrading to Outlook 2007 becomes very compelling.

The new Word is a joy to work with.  It’s this application where Office 2007’s revamped menus really shine.  Whether it’s large clear samples of fonts in the styles section, or diagrams of page layouts on the layout tabs, this menuing system makes the arcane world of Microsoft Word features much more accessible than ever before.  In addition, a whole series of bold new document templates will let anyone produce fabulous looking documents faster than ever before. 

Excel also sports new formatting features, making it easier to produce professional looking charts and tables.  Plus, the Office 2007 menu system makes it easier to get access to useful, but arcane, features like conditional formatting which the majority of users (except true Excel geeks) never use. 

PowerPoint has always had the feel of being the odd man out in the Office Suite.  Whether it was the fact that the menus worked a little differently, or that features were absent that you might expect in PowerPoint because they were common to the other applications, PowerPoint felt a little different. No more.  Like Word, and Excel, it makes prominent use of the new toolbars.  PowerPoint drawing tools are now prominently integrated into Word and Excel as well.  PowerPoint also prominently integrates WordArt, to give you fancy new text effects, and finally includes Mac-like soft shadowing, which this PC user has always been jealous of.  

PowerPoint doesn’t yet come with an in-house designer.  It’s as easy as ever to create terrible looking presentations — you just have more options.  To compensate for that, the PowerPoint team has included a raft of new templates, and template design options, giving you more control than ever over the layout of your presentation.

Beefs?

Current Office 2007 betas also contain the ability to write an Adobe PDF file, which is likely to be gone by the time Office 2007 finally ships.  That’s a shame.  It will likely be available separately, but it would be best if people didn’t have to go download it.  The Microsoft PDF writer works better than most of the PDF publishing software on the market, with the exception of Adobe’s, and it is a truly useful addition to Office. 

More importantly, for some unknown reason, some of the right-click context menus throughout Office have been removed.  That’s a stupid decision, which ignores the legions of power users accustomed to the use of context menus.  For instance, in the contact card edit form, you can no longer right click to paste in a telephone number copied from the footer of an email message.  Of course, if you’re a true dinosaur like me, you will know that CTRL-V also means paste… and that still works.

And finally, while on the topic of beefs, file formats have changed again, necessitating that you either save your files to older formats (and lose some of the new features in the process), or upgrade your entire office. 

Overall, I like Office 2007 very much.  It has a lot of compelling new features.  It’s easier and more fun to use, while producing more professional looking output.  And most of all, it’s solid today.  If Microsoft wasn’t planning to synchronize the release of Office with Windows Vista, they could start selling now.  The good news for you is that you can go try this by downloading the Office 2007 Preview, and not have to make your final upgrade decision until after Microsoft officially releases it next year. 

For more info:  Jensen Harris has a blog devoted to the new Office UI.  Check out this entry from CEBIT.  Ed Bott also provides some commentary, including a massive screen shot gallery. 

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