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Microsoft Office 10 Preview

The recent release of Office 10 Beta 1 has unearthed a slew of new features, including a subscription software service, voice control, and numerous simplification improvements that will help shape this release into a compelling upgrade over Office 2000. Office 10 Beta 1, which Microsoft now says will be called Office 2001 or Office 2002 when it ships, includes the client software, an Office Web Server, the Office Resource Kit, two Language Packs CDs, and a ClipArt CD; it's not clear which of these products will be separated out from the main Office product. The current beta supports Windows 95/98, NT 4 SP5, or Windows 2000: Windows Me is not supported on this release, though it will be in subsequent betas and the final version. Microsoft recommends 64 MB of RAM or more, and 250 MB of free hard disk space. Each Language Pack requires an additional 50 MB of storage space.

New Office 10 modes
New to this release of Office is a Subscription mode, which can be chosen during initial install. Subscription mode allows the user to register the product over the Internet and renew or extend the amount of time the software will work at regular intervals. A standard mode allows Office 10 to be installed as usual, but failing to register the product after 20 executions will cause the application to go into "reduced functionality mode," where the user can view documents but not edit or create documents. When Office 10 ships, it's likely that the product will offer only one of the two options, depending on the version purchased, or that the product key you receive will determine which type of installation mode will work.

New features across the board
Office 10 also features a flatter, streamlined new look and feel (Figure) that is designed to decrease the amount of onscreen clutter and simply the user experience. But it also takes advantage of new Windows 2000 graphics effects, fading floating toolbars, for example, after they are left unused for several seconds. New side panes for Mail Merge, Slide Templates, and the Clipboard allow users to format documents more quickly without launching separate dialog boxes (Figure). And a new speech recognition feature, first revealed in WinInfo, allows users to speak the names of toolbar buttons, menus, and menu items in Office (Figure). A Language toolbar (Figure) allows users to switch between "Dictation and Command" and "Control" modes and view a Speech Balloon, which displays the voice equivalents of mouse and keyboard commands. The first time that the speech feature is accessed, a training wizard will walk you a quick tutorial. The File New, Open, Save, and Save As dialogs have been modified yet again, with resizable windows and a "Side Pane" in the New dialog that allows you to use previously-created documents as templates (Figure).

Office corrects some of the major shortcomings of Office 2000, which is appreciated. A new AutoCorrect Options button helps the user control whether certain automatic spelling corrections, such as the ":)" smiley face conversion, occur automatically while typing (Figure). When a user deletes corrected text and re-types the original text, for example, AutoCorrect will learn to not make that correction again. A new Paste Options button lets the user determine how items are copied and pasted into Office documents. And the annoying Office Clipboard feature from Office 2000 has been enhanced to hold 24 items and features a preview mode and a tray icon so that the feature can be used from non-Office applications (Figure). And best of all, the horrible little Office Assistant will not appear by default in Office 10; instead, it appears only when the user asks for help or when specific help information becomes available for the user (Figure). An "Ask A Question" box now appears in the toolbar of every Office application instead (Figure).

New Web and collaboration features help you track, review, and merge changes made to Office documents that are shared by multiple users. Document authors can attach their documents to Outlook email, send the document to multiple recipients, and then manage the changes versions that are returned using a new Reviewing toolbar (Figure). And an Add Network Place wizard, that requires an MSN Passport account, lets you easily connect to remote systems. A suspicious Web Archive file format (*.mhtml, *.mht) allows Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher to display Office documents as if they were standard HTML files. But Web Archive files don't include extra folders containing images and other files like the Office 2000 Web format did.

One of the compelling new features in Office 10 brings the Search pane functionality from Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer to the new office productivity suite. All of the Office 10 applications support this new Search pane that provides one search location for the local computer, network computers, and Outlook simultaneously (Figure). And because the results of the search are displayed within the Office application you're currently using, you won't need to switch away from Office to find critical data.

Reliability enhancements
To make Office 10 more reliable and robust, Microsoft has added a number of new features that the company describes as "airbags for Office" (Figure). A Save On Crash feature provides a recovery feature that hopefully will save data after an application crash (Figure). And a Timed Recovery Save uses a more traditional approach to recovery by saving the current document at timed intervals. A fault injection tool called the Hang Manager will break into an unresponsive application so that Word, Excel, and PowerPoint users can save their files before the app goes off into never-never land. And borrowing a page from the Windows recovery world, Office 10 supports a Safe Mode that so that you can fix and troubleshoot failed application startups. And though not mentioned in the release notes, Office 10 includes a new version of Microsoft Installer that includes a number of new features, such as a way to move Office settings from one machine to another and a Custom Installation Wizard that makes it easier to deploy Office 10.

Word 10
Microsoft Word 10 has been "updated" with an option to turn off the controversial SDI user interface introduced in Office 2000, where a separate window was opened for every document. And Word 10 documents can be digitally signed, so that the contents of those documents can be certified to be unchanged since the time the digital signature was applied. Word 10 also supports multi-selection (finally) (Figure), power management, easier formatting reuse, and improvements to find and replace, bullets and numbered lists, tables, footnotes, proofing tools, AutoComplete, mail merge, and more. One major downside is that Word will be the default email editor in Office 10, a feature that Microsoft attempted previously in the past, but changed because of complaints (Figure).

Excel 10
Excel 10 (Figure) makes it easier to link data to the Web with a variety of new features including XML support. Excel also includes dozens of small updates that are based on customer requests.

Outlook 10
Outlook 10 sports improved offline behavior, a friendlier way to configure mail accounts (Figure), cancelable dialogs, and a unified reminder window. And though Word will be configured as the default email editor, this can be switched on the fly. Outlook 10 will finally support Hotmail, a feature that was originally planned for Outlook 2000 SR1 (Figure). And Outlook's email auto-complete will be improved to match that used by Outlook Express, another no-brainer that should have occurred in the previous release. Outlook 10 drops different "Internet-only" and "Corporate/Workgroup" modes for a single unified mode and includes new hooks with MSN Instant Messenger.

Access 10
In Access 10, Microsoft has updated the file format yet again, sure to cause groaning among the Access faithful. But Access 10 can open and modify Access 2000 databases without applying the new file format, which is a small concession at best (Figure). Access 2000 interacts with the new SQL Server 2000 Desktop Engine (formerly MSDE) for creating more scalable applications and supports two-way XML support.

PowerPoint 10 and FrontPage 10
PowerPoint 10 (Figure) includes new collaboration and animation features, while FrontPage 10 (Figure) includes new editing features and interacts with the new Office Web Server (OWS).

A new Office application, Office Web Designer (OWD), is designed to create and customize Web-based workgroup applications that run on the Web Storage System in Exchange Server 2000. OWD ships with a group of templates, including one for Digital Dashboard, which will help users get started with creating these workgroup applications.

Given this information, Office 10 appears to offer a compelling upgrade to Office 2000, though it doesn't offer the componentization I've been asking for since 1997, which Microsoft promises to deliver in a future release of Office.NET. I'll have more information on Office 10 when a later release is available.

Office 10 features a flat, streamlined user interface.

The annoying Office Assistant is less prevalent in Office 10.

Multi-select in Word? I must be dreaming!

Outlook 10 drops the restrictive modes of the past and opens up to mail from a variety of sources.

Even the crashes are friendlier.

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