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Microsoft Office XP Review, Part 5: New Features in Office XP

Office XP has been derided by some members of the press as a warmed-over upgrade with few new features. But this is clearly not the case: I enumerate through many of the new features here, and some of them--notably Smart tags--are actually quite compelling and innovative. For writers such as myself, Office XP is a must-have upgrade, and I suspect many people will have a hard time going back to earlier versions once they spend a few sessions with Office XP. Let's take a look at some of the more important features that are available to all or most Office XP applications.

New streamlined look
Office XP features a new look and feel that will later be used by the Whistler "watercolor" Theme when that OS debuts in late 2001 (Figure). Essentially an about-face from the consistent 3D interface that debuted in Windows 95, the Office XP user interface is flat, although the menus ironically display a shadow when open (Figure). Though the interface purists over at Apple will probably have a field day with this one, there is something nice about the subtle look of the new UI. On the other hand, it's rather jarring on pre-Whistler OSes (that is, every version of Windows currently available) because it's so different looking from every other application. Microsoft says that the goal was to remove visually competing items, visually prioritizing items on the screen, increasing letter and word spacing for better readability, and defining foreground and background colors in manner that brings the most important elements to the front.

So does it work? Yeah, I guess so: I tend to frown on Office taking its own route, as it does so often, at the expense of every other application on the planet. But the Office XP interface is attractive, and who said we need a consistent 3D light source on a 2D medium anyway?

Smart tags
Smart tags are potentially the single big ticket item in Office XP, which otherwise has the feel of a minor upgrade with numerous useful, but small, changes. In fact, Smart tags are so important, that I'll be featuring them in a future Technology Showcase on the SuperSite. For the purposes of this review, however, a short introduction is in order: Smart tags are small icon-like buttons that appear within Office documents in response to certain actions. For example, when you paste in a block of text in word, a small Paste Options Smart tag appears below the inserted text (Figure). If you hover over the small icon, it will identify itself as Paste Options and provide a drop-down triangle for you to select (Figure). When selected, a number of options are made available: "Keep source formatting," "Match destination formatting," "Keep text only," and "Apply style or formatting..." (Figure). The point here is to bubble functionality to the user in an unobtrusive fashion. Everything you can do with a Smart tag was previously available in Office; it was just harder to access.

I'll take a look at the individual Smart tags and their specific functionality in a future Showcase. In the meantime, this feature gets a big thumbs-up.

Task panes
Task panes are panels that appear on the right side of Office application windows, providing quick access to commonly-needed functionality (Figure). Task panes make it possible to open existing documents or create new documents, perform searches, view the Office clipboard, and the like. Task panes differ from application to application, but the concepts are always similar. For example, in Word, you can choose New from the File menu and the New Document task pane opens, rather than a dialog box. This pane includes a list of recent-accessed documents, a list of new document types, and other related options.

In the Beta 2 version of Office XP, there are serious limitations to the task pane feature: There's no way to ensure that the task pane is always present, and even though a "show at startup" option appears to provide for this, it doesn't work. And there's no key-combo to toggle the task pane, leaving one to manually navigate to the View menu to find it. Hopefully, this will be addressed in a future release.

Like Smart tags, Task panes are a huge and useful feature, one that I'm already quite fond of. I'll be exploring Task panes in a future Showcase as well. One Task pane worth noting, however, is the Office Clipboard, which replaces the anemic version from Office 2000 (Figure). This version can store up to 24 pieces of information, and because it's always docked on the side of the application, it's never in the way like the one from Office 2000 always is. But the improvements aren't that superficial: The Office XP Clipboard displays a visual representation of the data its containing, making it easy to work with stored data clips--text, images, whatever--that much easier. Not to belabor the point, but this is the sort of thing that needs to be included in Windows itself, but while I hate the fact that it's an Office-only feature for now, I do welcome its improvements.

Speech and handwriting recognition
Office XP includes integrated voice command and text dictation capabilities, as well as handwriting recognition. I haven't been able to test its handwriting feature, but the voice recognition is so bad it's almost not even worth discussing. I've heard that the Office voice features are the product of a half decade's work at Microsoft Research, but you wouldn't know it from what's available here. Compared to mature products like L&H's excellent Dragon Naturally Speaking (bundled, incidentally, with Corel WordPerfect), Office XP's voice recognition is sort of a joke.

As far as handwriting recognition goes, Office XP reportedly allows users to take handwritten notes on a portable device such as a PocketPC and upload their notes as text directly to an Office XP application. You can also write directly into a Word 10 document, then keep it in handwriting mode or change it to text. East Asian users will be able to handwrite Japanese, Chinese, or Korean characters, and Word will automatically convert the handwritten characters to the correct typed character.

Don't fire on retype
When you're typing a document, and an automatic correction happens (for example, you type "teh" and Word auto-corrects this to "the") it's not always what you want. So in Office XP, when you immediately change an auto-correction back to the original text that you typed, Office will not correct that particular word again. This was done in response to user complaints about the Auto Correct feature, which can often incorrectly change text to words it understands.

Office document imaging and scanning
In what might be seen as yet another bid to steal features from Windows, Office XP includes integrated imaging and scanning functionality, which allows the applications to directly control digital cameras and scanners. But there are actually good reasons for this to be part of Office; the integrated scanning supports Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which makes it possible to scan in printed documents and use the text in Word.

Modern versions of Windows (Windows Me, Whistler) have nicer imaging tools built in, but if you're using an older 9x version or Windows 2000, Office document imaging might be of interest for digital camera and scanner users. You don't even need to open an Office app to access these features, which are available directly from the Microsoft Office Tools group in the Start Menu.

Image compression
For Office documents that require a lot of embedded images, Office XP includes a feature called Compress Pictures, available from the Picture toolbar, which allows you to compress all or some of the images in a document and compress them to specific criteria (Figure). For example, you can choose to optimize the images for the Web (96 dpi) or print (200 dpi). This feature will be a big win for anyone that uses numerous images in their Office documents.

Office email introduction
When you choose to send email from any Office application (using the Email button in the Standard toolbar), Office XP adds a new introductory field, which lets you enter a small synopsis, or introduction, to the message (Figure). What this does is change the document itself into the message body, allowing you to write about the document in a new field without changing the document directly. In the Office-centric world of Microsoft, where people will send documents back and forth for revisions, I suppose this sort of thing makes sense. But for most people, Office documents are sent as attachments, leaving the message body to its original mission. I suspect this won't change in Office XP.

Office Help: Ask a Question/Office Assistant/Help window improvements
When it comes to Office, nothing has come under fire over the years as much as its online help system, which has forever burned the annoying visage of Clippit, the Office Assistant, into the collective memory of millions of users. The Office Assistant began life as a hard-to-remove feature in Office 97, but Microsoft listened to the complaints and made it easier to hide in Office 2000. But the complaints kept coming in, so now Clippit and company won't even show up by default in Office XP, and thank God for that. But Microsoft is continuing its well-regarded work in natural language processing for online help, where it's possible to ask plain English questions and get relevant responses back. So in Office XP, a useful "Ask a Question" box appears in the upper right corner of each application, giving users a chance to type in help questions (Figure). The feature works great, and it's everything the Office Assistant isn't: Unobtrusive and elegant. And when you do actually ask a question, a small drop-down box with a list of potential related tasks appears (Figure).

And then that damned Office help window pops up (Figure). I hate Office help, which hasn't changed dramatically from Office 2000: The window appears, automatically resizing your Office application into a skinny, barely usable vestige of its former self. This feature--which was created so that people could read help and apply the recommended changes to their documents without switching back and forth between the two windows--is implemented so poorly that it's inconceivable the company has received constant complaints. Why isn't this easily customizable? What if I don't want this to happen? Or maybe I want the windows tiled horizontally, rather than vertically, which makes Word documents, in particular, very hard to deal with. Microsoft should consider throwing up a Wizard the first time online help appears, so that users can choose how this thing will appear: The Wizard could show sample layouts of the possible application window/help window combinations.

That said, there have been small improvements to the Help system: Microsoft's Web-based product support site is now integrated into Help, so that you can get help on the Web if the included help falls short.

Web integration
Office XP includes numerous Web-integration features, which should come as no surprise, as Office has been innovating in this area since the release of the Word 95 HTML converter years back. A "Save to MSN" feature lets users save Office documents to MSN Web community-based file cabinets; this feature will installed in desktop versions of Whistler as well (Figure). MSN Web communities can be made public or private, for sharing purposes, and it's only natural that the company would integrate its Web services in such a manner, though I expect that few people--especially the corporate crowd typically targeted by Office--will take advantage of the feature. Microsoft says that Save to MSN allows users to share files on the Internet without ever leaving Office, but you can achieve much the same effect--without a reliance on MSN--by creating Web-based Network Places (Web Folders in Windows 98 and NT 4) and saving to that location instead.

New collaboration features
For Office XP, Microsoft identified a number of areas to improve that were based more on the way people actually used prior versions of the products, rather than on specific improvement requests. One of these areas is document collaboration, where one or more people will contribute to a document over the course of its lifetime. Office has always made this type of work possible; indeed, I use Office 2000's collaboration features fairly extensively. But Office XP takes it to the next level.

First up is Send for Review, a feature in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint that allows you to send an Office document to another user via email (Figure). When the other user opens the document, the appropriate reviewing tools are automatically enabled (Figure). And then, when the document is reviewed, and sent back, the originator can merge the changes into the original document. To enable this feature, simply choose Send To -> Mail Recipient for Review from the File menu. If you're working with multiple revisions of a document, Office XP offers the Compare and Merge feature, which gives you the ability to merge multiple revisions and comments. This feature kicks in when you open a document that has been returned from review using the Send for Review feature.

In Office XP, the reviewing feature has been improved in a number of ways. Changes in Word and PowerPoint documents are now represented by "markups," which visually resemble hand-marked revisions on printed documents: The idea is to move the changes away from the text of the document into the margin area, so that it's out of the way (Figure). And the reviewing toolbar, now available by default when a document sent for review is open, has been improved in a number of useful ways.

Office XP integrates with Microsoft SharePoint, a Web site for team document management. Based on the "Tahoe" SharePoint Portal Server, SharePoint lets team members create contact and task lists, event calendars, document storage libraries, and surveys, all using a Web browser. Office XP's Save/Open dialogs have been modified to work with SharePoint through the My Network Places icon. And SharePoint Web sites can be edited in FrontPage. SharePoint-based collaboration looks cool, and I'm eager to test this feature out on a future book project.

Reliability improvements
One of the biggest complaints that Microsoft received about previous versions of Office was that application and operating system crashes would often render open documents unreadable after a reboot. To answer these problems, the company has implemented a number of nice reliability improvements in Office XP, though predictably, some of the best features are only available in certain applications. For example, Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint users are automatically protected by a feature called Document Recovery, which will save any open documents whenever an application error occurs. When an error does occur, the application displays a dialog offering to recover the document and restart the application. Included in this scenario is Application Error Reporting, which will optionally upload information about the error to Microsoft if you're connected to the Internet and you're inclined to share.

An enhancement to Document Recovery, called Application Recovery, provides a second level of protection when good apps go bad. If one of the Office applications stops responding, you can launch Microsoft Application Recovery from the Microsoft Office Tools group in the Start menu and choose to restart or close the hung application. This will let users manually launch Document Recovery in the event that the app is too far gone to do so itself.

Microsoft Word and Excel also provide a tool to repair corrupt documents. Dubbed Repair and Extract, this feature can be used in the event that an application or system failure still manages to corrupt a document or make it unopenable. You can choose to repair a document by choosing "Open and Repair" from the new drop-down box available below the Open button in the File Open dialog (Figure).. Word and Excel also support Auto Recover; you can choose Auto Recover options from the Save tab of the Options dialog.

Like Windows itself, Office XP now supports Safe Mode, where problems preventing an application from booting cause that application to launch in a special diagnostic mode that will help reduce downtime. This only occurs when there is a problem; you can't initiate Safe Mode manually.

Overall, the list of reliability improvements in Office XP appears to be quite impressive. I say "appears" because I've not run into any of these issues in almost three months of use. I'll update this section with more information if I'm ever unfortunate enough to experience any of this. But my initial reaction to the stability and reliability of Office XP, even during its beta, has been quite positive.

Other Office XP issues
In addition to the many features listed above, Office XP includes a wide range of additional services and sub-applications that provide even more functionality. The Office Template Gallery provides access to hundreds of pre-made templates on the Web; you can access this feature from the New Document Task pane, under the "New from template -> Templates on" option. For clip art lovers, the new Media Gallery feature provides thousands of clip art images, sounds, photos, and animations. Optionally, you can include clips from the Web-based Clip Gallery Live, which is updated with new images monthly. When you print Office documents on the Web from within Internet Explorer, the Office application that created the document is launched so that you can take advantage of Office's vast superior printing services. And if you're creating documents for the Web, an improved Web options dialog lets you target IE 6.0, 5.0, 4.0, or various versions of Netscape, giving you better control over the way viewers will see your documents.

Curiously, PhotoDraw is not part of the Office XP update. Microsoft tells me that PhotoDraw is on a different upgrade schedule and will be updated after Office XP ships.

I'll be covering deployment and installation features in a future part of this review.

On to Microsoft Word 2002...

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