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Moving to a new Office

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Office XP’s Outlook e-mail program, above, is integrated with Microsoft’s online services. Click on the Hotmail button and it will automatically check your Hotmail account.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001


Microsoft has gotten it right with the latest version of its Office software suite, XP.

Microsoft has changed more than the name of its top-selling Office software suite, with improvements and new features that make it easier, and less annoying, to use.

The additions to Office XP (short for "experience") offer help when a user opens a program such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but in a more unobtrusive way that puts the consumer in control.

Microsoft has been criticized over the years for sticking consumers with bloated software that fills hard drives with features most users never need and, worse, makes everyday use confusing.

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A Task Pane, which appears on the right side of Word’s screen, offers users a choice of opening a recent document, a blank document or a template.
This time, the honchos in Redmond, Wash., seem to have gotten it right. Office XP, due on the market May 31, allows users to make corrections, formatting and other changes from within a document instead of sifting through a menu bar. It improves collaboration, adds speech recognition and lets users salvage their work in case of a crash.

It also includes more integration with the Web, especially Microsoft sites. (After all, this is the same old empire-builder we've come to love and hate.)

All of this, Microsoft hopes, will make Office less daunting for people to use and make it more likely they will consider shelling out hundreds of dollars for an upgrade on a product that accounts for 40 percent or more of the company's revenues.

Tinkering with a product that dominates the office-software market can be tricky, but Microsoft says customer comments drove many of the changes. Of particular note: The company found many people use only about 20 percent of Office's features because of its complexity.

The upgrade also is important because it's one of Microsoft's major initiatives this year. Others include the new consumer version of Windows, also called XP, its new Xbox video game console and its .Net Internet initiative.

Here's a look at some of the new features in Office XP:

Task Panes: This allows a user to start work with a single click instead of going to File, Open and choosing a function. When you open a program such as Word, a column appears on the right side of the screen. It shows a list of recently created documents and functions such as new document, search, formatting and templates.

A nice touch on the Task Pane is the at-a-glance list of what has been saved on the clipboard, indicating whether it's text, a chart or a photo. The clipboard, Office's repository for bits and pieces of work in progress, now can hold 24 items instead of the 12 in Office 2000.

Smart Tags: These buttons appear within a document as you work. Users can click on them to make corrections, undo one of Office's automatic corrections or make format changes.

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Smart Tags pop up in a Word document to offer options, such as adding an e-mail address from Outlook’s address book or change a style or format, depending on what you are typing.
For example, if you're writing a letter in Word and put the mouse over the recipient's name, a Smart Tag will appear that lets you import the address from the Outlook e-mail program, then go to the Web to get a map from Microsoft's Expedia site. If you paste a chart from the Excel spreadsheet into a Word document, a Smart Tag allows the user to change the style or format.

And a Smart Tag lets a user turn off the auto-correct feature that thinks it knows how you really should have spelled that unusual word or name. Move the cursor over a word that has been mis-corrected by Office, and the Smart Tag lets you undo or ignore the change.

Speech recognition: Professor Higgins would be so happy, if only momentarily. On the second try, Office's new built-in voice-to-type translator correctly transcribed the lyrics "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" of My Fair Lady fame.

On the other hand, "By George, I think you've got it" came out as "But Georgia, I think you've got it." Still, it was better than our tests last year, when three speech-recognition products failed to get the lyrics right at all.

Microsoft emphasizes that a user shouldn't plan on abandoning the keyboard and mouse, even with the program. And, as with other speech-recognition software, users will spend a lot of time, and aggravation, as the software learns your speech patterns.

In Office XP, the software is included in the disk, not a separate product. Installation is easy, and it took about 10 minutes to read the prepared script so that the software could learn my voice before I started working.

After the lyrics, I tried a letter. A friend's name, Ron Hartung, came out as "Part time," the "727" in the address as "Seven to seven" and the greeting as "Dear Mr. Of our town." And my name with my middle initial of M for the signature line appeared as "Did demo does so."

Using voice commands to control basic functions -- ordering Office to open file and print a letter -- was more successful, but it, too, will take time to master. (XP also has a new handwriting-recognition function that allows people to take notes on handheld devices and upload directly to Office, but we didn't test it.)

Outlook e-mail: This is a good news-bad news category. The good: Outlook now lets users connect to outside Web-based e-mail accounts. The bad: For the moment, it appears that only Microsoft's own Hotmail and MSN can be accessed, not my account at Yahoo, for example. Still, it was nice to check multiple accounts through one program simply by clicking icons.

Microsoft claims the technology is open so others can take advantage of it. We'll have to see what happens on that, but it's also interesting that instant message alerts while you're in Office can come only from MSN Messenger.

Crash protection: How times have changed. Being Microsoft used to mean never having to say you're sorry when users were stuck with frozen screens, incomprehensible error messages and lost work.

While working with Outlook e-mail in the new Office XP, a message popped up on the screen: "Microsoft Outlook has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience."

Sorry was nice, but it still didn't explain the error. Instead, the pop-up box gave options to report the error directly to Microsoft, which claims it will use such data to improve the product, and to restart Outlook, both of which I did. All I lost was a couple minutes of downtime.

Maybe more important is a Document Recovery feature that saves open files as they were at the time of an error, avoiding the time and headaches of re-creating them.

There's more, because Office has so many features. Programs have a box in the upper right corner so users can ask questions and get help without leaving the document. Users can scan documents directly into Office, then use the text in their applications. Collaboration on documents is easier for businesses.

Microsoft promises that Office XP will be compatible with previous versions dating to Office 97, though new features such as Smart Tags will not show up on the older versions.

-- Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

What you need for Office XP

Because Office is aimed primarily at businesses, Microsoft's recommended configuration is a Pentium III computer using Windows 2000 Professional and 128 megabytes of random access memory. However, it also will run on home computers. Here are suggested minimum requirements:

OPERATING SYSTEM: Windows 98 or later and a Pentium processor running at 133 MHz. It will not run on Windows 95 or the Macintosh. And it doesn't need the upcoming consumer version of Windows XP, despite the shared name.

HARD DRIVE: At least 245 megabytes of hard drive space.

RAM: Amounts vary depending on which version of Windows is used and how many applications are running. For more details on other operating system requirements, see www.microsoft.com/office/xp/fastfacts.htm#sysrequire.

PRICE: The expected upgrade price is $239, with versions for new users starting at $479.

RELEASE DATE: May 31 is the official rollout, though the company is offering a $9.95 one-month trial version that will ship April 30.

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