The Office XP Saga

One of the most hyped software launches in recent times is that of Microsoft Office XP.
I personally can’t remember any launch having been the subject of such a sustained press and television advertising campaign. I must have seen that darned ‘flying ostrich’ advert at least a dozen times and I don’t watch that much telly.
I can’t help getting the feeling that this is one product upgrade that Microsoft would really like us to buy. In the next column or two (or three) I’ll take a closer look to see if it lives up to its publicity.
Office XP comes in a Standard version which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook and a Professional version which includes the Access database program. The web development program FrontPage has been removed from Office and PhotoDraw has been discontinued.
The first thing you should know about Office XP is that it stops working after 50 uses unless you register it with Microsoft. This process is known as Product Activation and is designed to eliminate software piracy which apparently costs the company billions.
The registration process is easily done on the Internet or over the phone but the snag is that you’ll only be allowed to re-register the product a couple of times. This could become a bit of a problem for you the third or fourth time you redo your system.
Week 2
Last time I introduced the new version of Microsoft Office which is known as Office XP.
I said that the product reflects a major change in Microsoft’s sales strategy in that you have to activate it by phone or over the Internet otherwise it stops working after 50 uses. Users will only be allowed to install the package a limited number of times which could present a problem after you have redone your system a couple of times.
There is also the possibility that Office XP will suddenly stop working and require reactivation if you make any major changes to your PC hardware. It detects hardware changes and may stop working because it assumes that it has been illegally copied to a different PC.
I haven’t got an answer on how many times Microsoft will allow users to register their copies of Office but I can’t see how they can refuse if you can prove you bought the package. I personally don’t believe Product Activation will be too much of a problem and, in any case, I have already heard rumours that the system has been cracked.
Wordprocessing is my thing so I the first program I started was Word and found that it looks very much the same as its predecessor. There have been minor changes in its look and feel but it’s essentially still the same old Word.
The most striking new addition to its interface is the dynamic Task Pane which initially appears on the right-hand side of the screen and contains useful stuff like a list of documents you’ve been using. There are other Task Panes which appear as necessary to assist in finding and inserting Clip Art, doing mail merges, selecting and pasting from the Office Clipboard, and much more.
There are a number of new features in the program which are aimed at making life easier for users and, although they aren’t brutally in-your-face, they are generally around when you need them.
I encountered a good example of this when looking for a picture of a cat. Word not only showed me the two pictures it had on hand, but also dialled the Internet to check for more on the Microsoft web site.
I was then presented with 84 pages of stuff to do with cats including clip art, photos and sounds and all I had to do was mark the items I wanted and click the Download button.
I was even more impressed to see that the downloaded items were automatically integrated into the Clip Organiser program from which I could copy and paste them into any document.
There is also an online library of templates that you can use as a starting point in producing all manner of documents from wills to party invitations and even a draft lottery syndicate agreement. All you have to do is click Templates on Microsoft.com, pick the one you want, and click the Edit in Microsoft Word button.
Week 3
In the last couple of columns I introduced the newly launched Microsoft Office XP and made a start describing some of the new features of Word.
I said that there were some pretty nifty improvements in the program including including Task Panes and Smart Tags. Other additions include improved autocorrect, improved document review and speech and handwriting recognition which I haven’t had an opportunity to test.
Word also has improved table and list formatting and it allows you to select a number of different areas in a document. There is a simplified mail merge feature which makes it really dead easy to produce form letters, envelopes or labels.
There is a new diagramming feature which allows you to create organisation, radial, target, cycle and pyramid diagrams quickly and easily. One of the new additions I really value is the word count toolbar which displays the number of word in your document without your having to open a dialog box every time.
And that brings me to smart tags which are useful little buttons which appear periodically in your document and give you access to commands you might need at the time. When you paste something into a document, for example, a smart tag appears which you can click to select how you want the job done.
I can’t even begin to add up how much time I’ve spent in Word removing unwanted formatting from stuff I’ve copied from spreadsheets, web pages, and the like. Now you can choose to paste only the text, keep the formatting of the object you copied, or alter its formatting to match where you are pasting it.
None of the many changes and additions to Word are that dramatic but to my mind there’s no doubt that they do combine to make it a better tool than its predecessor.
Excel is the other heavyweight member of the Office XP family and, as with Word, it does have a slightly different look and feel. It also has many of the same new features as Word including Task Panes, Smart Tags and the Office clipboard that can hold 24 items instead of Windows’ miserly one.
One useful-looking new feature which Excel has acquired is the ability to go across the Internet and get fresh data from Web page tables you’ve pasted into it. You could, for example, paste share prices into Excel and have it update them whenever you want it to.
Excel users have long been able to use AutoSum to add the contents of a number of cells together. Now AutoSum can not only calculate the mean or average of the numbers you give it but it can apply just about any function to the numbers your heart could desire.
Week 4
In the last few weeks we’ve been taking a look at Microsoft Office XP and I’ve discussed the new features included in Word and Excel.
PowerPoint is the third member of the Office suite and has long been one of the premier tools around for creating electronic business presentations. There have been a number of incremental changes to PowerPoint but it is still essentially the same old package.
It has the same new look and feel as the other office applications and it shares a number of suite-wide features with them including Task Panes and Smart Tags. It also has improved collaboration features which make it possible to forward presentations to a number of people for review and then incorporate the changes they make into your document.
Other improvements include a number of new animation effects, better organisation charts and several new diagram types including radial and pyramid ones. The program now has Print Preview and a very nifty feature which makes it easy to take a number of digital images and make them into a photo album.
Outlook is Microsoft’s all-in-one appointments calendar, address book, to-do list, note taker and e-mail program. In the past I have been prejudiced against it and preferred instead to stick to Outlook Express for my e-mail needs.
This new version of Outlook does appear to be an improvement and I am strongly tempted to give it a try. It’s slick and pretty easy to use and I haven’t encountered any major problems yet.
It will now allow you add a number of different types of e-mail account (including Hotmail) and check them all at once. It will also try to complete e-mail addresses for you as you type them and it has a Mailbox Cleanup feature which will allow you to reduce the size of your mailboxes by finding and archiving old messages or those bigger than a specified size.
I have to say that I like rather Microsoft Office XP and generally value the little tweaks and improvements that have been made to it. I reckon that they will add up to make life just that little bit easier for users.
I believe that there is reason to be happy if you get Office XP but, to answer the $64000 question about whether it would be worth lashing out on an upgrade to get it, I’d have to say no. Many people will not really appreciate the difference between it and other reasonably recent versions of Office.
One area where I am a little disappointed is that the Office applications are still essentially separate and are not more tightly integrated. I believed that Microsoft was going to go the full integration route with Office but they show no signs of that so far.
By now I’d have liked to see Office with a single expandable interface from which you could access its various components and, indeed, other applications provided by Microsoft and its competitors.
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