Office 2000: Too Much Renovation

Microsoft's changes suit big companies fine-but are overkill for lower-tech users

How often do you create a document, spreadsheet, or slide presentation to be shared with colleagues over an intranet? If you work for a technologically advanced corporation, your answer may be "all the time." But if you work for a smaller company or just one that doesn't live on the cutting edge of technology, the likelier answer is "huh?"

Microsoft clearly had the first group in mind when it designed Office 2000 for Windows, the latest version of its flagship application suite, with the goal of letting "users move ahead into a new global, Web-centric world." While Office 2000, which is shipping now to corporate customers and will be available in stores on June 10, contains a number of refinements that all users of Word, Excel, Outlook, and especially PowerPoint will appreciate, the upgrade is clearly aimed at big corporate buyers.

This is most obvious in the heavy emphasis on the preparation of material to be read in Web browsers. By itself, that is not new. What is new is the ability to save documents and spreadsheets in the Web's hypertext markup language and preserve features, such as notes and formulas, that cannot be displayed in browsers. This allows people to post material to the Web, then bring it back into Word or Excel without losing information. It also makes it easier for work groups that share access to an internal corporate Web site to work together to create documents.

The new Office can be installed with a minimal set of features. Anything not part of the basic set, such as automatic hyphenation, will be quickly and painlessly downloaded from a network file server when used for the first time. This ability to install on demand is handy for corporate technology managers who may want to reduce the impact of a standard installation, which is huge at 250 megabytes. But it only works if you are on a network all the time. If not, you had better keep the Office installation CD-ROM handy. Microsoft has added protections against booby-trapped files, such as the Melissa virus. But the technology employed depends on corporate authentication, which won't do much outside the office.

Not all the new features of Office 2000 are enterprise-oriented. One big change you will notice right away is much simpler menus. Only the most frequently used items appear. The more obscure commands are hidden until you click on an arrow at the bottom of the list or keep a menu open for more than a few seconds without making a choice. This hides some of the sprawling complexity of Office.

ALBANIAN. Another feature that is really intended to make life simpler for multinational corporations can be a big benefit for individuals who work in more than one language. A new feature lets you work in just about any language with the appropriate spell and grammar checkers, hyphenation dictionaries, and other language tools. I found switching languages a bit tricky at first, but once set up, it's easy to go from English to Albanian or 36 other languages. (English, French, and Spanish are standard; other languages require the $70 Proofing Tools CD.)

The changes in the individual Office applications are limited, as befits mature products. Word and Excel get some minor tweaks. Word now lets you enter text anywhere on a page, a feature long available in Corel's rival WordPerfect. And in a feature borrowed from the Macintosh, you can now save multiple selections to the clipboard and paste any or all of them into a document.

My vote for the most improved Office component is PowerPoint. A new screen design shows a slide, speaker's notes, and an outline of your entire presentation at the same time. Clicking on any slide opens it for editing, vastly simplifying the creation of presentations.

Outlook, the complex E-mail and contact-management program, got a major overhaul last year and is little changed in this go-round. An improved version of Publisher, a program that makes it relatively simple to prepare documents such as brochures for printing, is now a standard component of the Office suite.

All in all, Office 2000 represents a useful evolution in what most business computer users regard as their most important set of applications. Still, I couldn't escape the feeling that Office is ridiculous software overkill for a lot of people--too big, too complex, and too expensive. In my next column, I will look at how key Office applications could be made more useful and accessible for home users and small-business people.

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