A suite experience
Collaboration tools and improved usability make Office XP a standout
Now this is what an office suite should be.
Microsoft Office has long been the dominant office suite, with the lion's share of the market. And many have wondered whether it earned that spot more by virtue of Microsoft Corp.'s marketing muscle than by superiority over the likes of Corel Corp.'s Word.Perfect Office and Lotus Development Corp.'s SmartSuite. Now, with the introduction of Office XP, Microsoft more clearly justifies its dominance. (According to Microsoft, XP stands for experience.)
Users will find major enhancements in three areas: ease of use, Web integration and collaboration tools. In addition, information systems professionals will appreciate a host of improvements in suite- deployment and management features.
One of the first things most users will notice is Office's new Task Pane. It doesn't add functionality, but it does facilitate the use of Office application utilities. The pane opens automatically when you perform certain operations—such as searching for files, formatting documents or using the clipboard—or you can manually open the pane, making it visible at all times. If your monitor is large enough that leaving the pane open doesn't eat into document display, you'll probably prefer this strategy.
We also liked the new Smart Tags that have been added to all Office applications. Smart Tags are pop-up buttons that automatically appear during certain operations. When you paste text into a Word document, for example, a button pops up offering you controls over how to format the pasted text. Microsoft has also greatly expanded the options for importing data into Office applications. For example, speech recognition is now offered. Even with little training time, we were impressed with Office's accuracy in recognition, finding it superior to dedicated programs we've tested recently. Speech support is available for Chinese, Japanese and U.S. English.
Also new is handwriting recognition, a feature we did not get a chance to test. If you have a handheld device or writing pad, you can write directly into Word documents.
And users with scanners won't have to spend additional dollars for an optical character recognition package because Office now includes a worthy OCR engine. Bear in mind, however, that you won't have the fine controls available from a dedicated OCR package, such as ScanSoft Inc.'s OmniPage Pro. We also found it somewhat awkward to set Word up to acquire text via a scanner. You have to go to the File/Acquire Text Settings menu to select whether the program will look for files from the hard drive, a scanner or a digital camera. It would be more convenient if you could simply issue the Acquire Text command and then select your source. What's more, this topic isn't available in the Word Help file.
On the plus side, we do appreciate Office XP's new built-in support for image compression. This feature holds down file sizes, which is especially important to departments and agencies that move a lot of e-mail documents back and forth.
With previous versions of Office, multiple users could collaborate on documents by using red-lining and version control on documents that would be shared via e-mail or possibly via a Web collaboration solution, such as eRoom from eRoom Technology Inc. With Office XP Professional Special Edition, which includes FrontPage and SharePoint Team Services, Microsoft has included the full set of collaboration tools. (The Professional Special Edition is available only as an upgrade from Office 97 or a later version and, according to Microsoft, will be available for a limited time from certain resellers; it cannot be bought directly from Microsoft.)
SharePoint Team Services—also available in Office XP Developer—provides a complete, Web-based work environment that enables team members to access document libraries, calendars, and contact and task lists. Users can also participate in group discussions and can receive automatic notification when site content changes.
We found SharePoint easy to get up and running, and we found the document libraries in particular to be an effective means of group collaboration. Users can create documents as well as filter existing documents from within the browser interface.
In addition, SharePoint offers strong document-editing controls. When one user has a document checked out, it cannot be edited by other users. What's more, authors can tag documents as drafts so that only users specified as co-authors can view them. When the author specifically publishes the document, it will be available to all other users.
Editing and publishing rights can also be specified by administrators on a folder-by-folder basis. You can even set it up so that all documents in a folder must be approved by a specified user before they can be published.
Outlook's contact-management and scheduling program is also well integrated with the Internet in this version. When you open an e-mail message in Outlook, for example, you can automatically check to see if the sender is online; if so, you can initiate an MSN Messenger Service session. If your department uses the Exchange server, Outlook can also share availability information with other users for scheduling group meetings. But even if you don't use Exchange, Outlook now enables users to save multiple group calendars.
Office XP also offers enhanced tools within its applications for collaborative work. We were especially impressed with Word's new markup feature. Instead of making an unreadable jumble of words by crossing out deleted text and using a rainbow of colors to signify text inserted by different users, the new feature moves all deletions and other revisions to the side of the document. The main text of the document remains clean and readable, reflecting all the proposed changes.
What's more, when you send a document for review and the recipient opens it, it will come up in review mode with all the appropriate reviewing tools available. When the document is sent back, it's a snap to merge changes back into the original document.
Of course, the more users who are moving documents around on the network, the more important security measures become. Microsoft has beefed up security in Office XP. Word and Excel offer improved password encryption options for documents, and PowerPoint offers it for the first time. You can choose CryptoAPI or the somewhat less secure default encryption that was offered in earlier versions of Office.
Office XP also offers users the ability to digitally sign documents to ensure that when a user receives a document, it actually came from the purported author and has not been changed since it was signed.
System administrators will be pleased to see a couple of important additions to Office's deployment tools. For one thing, when you are upgrading a user's earlier version of Office to Office XP, the program will automatically detect the user's current configuration and install only the same components. Administrators can also use the Custom Installation Wizard to set security levels for each of the suite's applications and to remove outdated Office files.
The Custom Maintenance Wizard offers administrators tools for maintaining Office XP installations, including the ability to add and remove applications and change configuration settings from a central location. In addition, applications can be installed directly from a Web server.
Office XP is a significant improvement over previous versions of Office. But the critical question for departmental and agency IT shops is whether the improvements are sufficient to warrant the expense of upgrading. If your agency or department has not already settled on a Web collaboration solution, the answer is a no-brainer: Get Office XP. Otherwise, you'll need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether individuals will benefit from the enhanced usability and collaborative tools in Office XP.
NEXT STORY: Agencies test PeopleSoft's CRM