Microsoft Office has been in a bit of a rut of late. The current version of the dominant productivity package, Office 2000, was designed largely to make life easier for corporate systems administrators. As a result, many home users, including me, have chugged along happily with the four-year-old Office 97. But the new Office XP, which went on sale May 31, returns the focus to individuals and gives us good reason to consider upgrading.
Don't look for dramatic changes in Word, the Excel spreadsheet, the Outlook contact and mail manager, or the PowerPoint presentation program, all of which are compatible with documents created in earlier versions. These core Office applications are mature products that will evolve slowly. The emphasis in Office XP (not to be confused with the Windows XP operating system, due in October) is on making existing features more usable. And here Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) has done well.
The most important changes to Office are called the Task Pane and Smart Tags. The Task Pane is a window on the right side of the program's working area, but it can be moved anywhere. It contains helpful information relevant to what you are doing at the moment, though exactly what it shows depends on which of several panes you have selected. My favorite is the Reveal Formatting pane, which gives all the information about currently selected text. Click on a link, such as "font" or "indentation," and you are presented with a dialog box that allows you to change the setting. No more remembering which of Word's myriad menu choices is the right one.
Smart Tags are an extremely versatile way to help people discover and use features of the programs. When your cursor passes over text that has a Smart Tag attached, a special icon appears. Click on it, and you get a menu of actions. For example, a Smart Tag attached to what Word thinks is a person's name offers a list of choices, including the option of entering an address or sending e-mail (both work only for names in your Outlook contact list). Click on an address and, if you are connected to the Internet, your Smart Tag choices include a map or driving directions to the location.
I suspect that Microsoft added some of these features just because it could. How often will I really want directions to someone's office when typing her name in a letter? But other uses of Smart Tags are a lot more practical.
The tags can help tame what is simultaneously one of the most powerful and annoying features of Office applications, especially Word: automatic formatting and correction of text. For example, Word assumes that a period should be followed by a capital letter unless the period comes after a known abbreviation. Some people like this, but it drives others crazy.
You've always been able to turn the feature off, but that option was well-hidden. Now, every automatic change generates a Smart Tag that lets you control the behavior. In the case of auto-capitalization, one choice undoes the capitalization in this instance. A second turns the feature off. A third tells Word never to capitalize after that abbreviation. And a fourth gives a list of auto-correction options to turn on or off. Companies will be able to extend the usefulness of Smart Tags by creating their own--for example, to provide instant help in filling out forms.
I hope Smart Tags represent a trend. In the past, Microsoft and other publishers have used the growing power of computers to pile on features most people never discovered. Now, computational muscle is going into tools that make programs easier to use. (Contrary to Microsoft's own reports, the annoying Clippy has not met his demise. But the unhelpful talking paper clip is now automatically off unless you turn it on.)
Office XP is being sold in a variety of packages. Standard includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook for $479, or $239 as an upgrade. Professional adds the Access database for about $100.
At those prices, many people may stick with what they have, especially since older programs work just fine. But for the first time in four years, an upgrade for individual Office users may be worth the time and trouble.