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Office 97: Good Help Gets Easier To Find

Technology & You


Microsoft Office's animated icons guide you through a tough program

About 15 months ago, Microsoft Corp. introduced, with much hoopla, a revolutionary product called Bob. The idea was that advice given by an animated guide, a pesky cartoon dog named Rover, would make it easy for novices to learn and use Windows 95. Consumers and reviewers hated it, and Bob beat an ignominious retreat from store shelves.

Gone but not forgotten. The animated "Office assistants" that are a prominent part of Microsoft Office 97 are Bob's progeny. I was deeply skeptical about these omnipresent artificial-intelligence devices. But to my surprise, I found the animated assistants useful--and a feature that sets the new Office apart from competing software suites (Jan. 27).

CONFUSED. Microsoft developed the assistants after learning--no big surprise--that people find monster programs, such as its Excel spreadsheet and Word, confusing. In fact, says Robert J. Bach, marketing vice-president for Microsoft's desktop applications division, most requests for "new features" were for items that were already part of the programs.

Microsoft's assistants live in a small window that's open whenever any Office program is running. (The window is supposed to scoot out of the way of your work, and most of the time it does). To get aid, you click on the assistant window, and up pops a list of help topics based on what you've been doing most recently in the program. For example, if you click on the assistant while using the spell checker, the menu of help choices will include spelling and grammar assistance.

When the assistant wants to offer a suggestion, a lightbulb shows up in the window, and you can click to see the tip. When the suggestion is urgent, if, say, you have repeatedly started and canceled a print job, the assistant will pop open a window offering advice.

The system is far from perfect. The animated assistant jumping about can be distracting. I was happiest when I selected the dullest of the characters, an Office "puzzle piece" logo. The assistants also make noises that can, mercifully, be turned off. More seriously, the suggestions sometimes miss completely, offering irrelevant advice. But on the whole, I was impressed by the accuracy.

The assistants should be particularly appealing to businesses. The on-screen adviser can help cut training costs. And anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Microsoft's Visual Basic programming language can customize the assistant. For example, you could create custom tips explaining a company's rules for completing a purchase-order form in Word or an expense report in Excel.

COMMON MISTAKES. The grammar checker is another valuable feature. Grammar checkers usually remind me of a bad sixth-grade teacher who makes good advice--such as to avoid the passive voice--into a hidebound rule. Office looks for mistakes rather than trying to change your writing style. It puts a gray squiggly line under a suspected error, such as a plural verb with a singular subject. A mouse click on the offending word or phrase brings up a proposed change. The grammar checker sometimes offers suggestions that would make a correct sentence wrong. But it is very good at finding such common mistakes as using "there" instead of "their" or "it's" for "its."

There's lots of room for improvement in this new approach to software help. Moreover, I still have my doubts that bouncy assistants are the best way to present information. But the basic idea is a winner: use technology to make technology easier to use.By STEPHEN H. WILDSTROMReturn to top


Computers make handy speakerphones, but their on-screen controls can be awkward to use. Not the TelePort 33.6 Speakerphone from Global Village (800 329-9675). It is a $240 external modem that works as a speakerphone even when your computer is turned off. The sleek, shark fin-shaped unit features on-off, mute, and volume controls and a built-in microphone. When your Windows PC is on, the TelePort works with Global Village's FocalPoint software to become an answering machine with multiple mailboxes, caller ID, and auto dialing from your computer's list of phone numbers.By STEPHEN H. WILDSTROMReturn to top

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