Review: 2007 Microsoft Office Beta 2 Is Up And Running

Beta 2 of Microsoft's upcoming Office suite is out. It's bigger and better, but still a bit strange.

May 25, 2006

17 Min Read
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It's been a while since Microsoft's Office suite, the collection of software applications that a large percentage of today's workers use on a daily basis, has had a major overhaul. Redmond brought out Beta 1 of the new collection last November; now Beta 2 is out. The new version (officially called 2007 Microsoft Office, with the year before the name) has added several features to the previous iteration and has firmed up many of the features that didn't work properly in Beta 1. In addition, Microsoft has put together the various packages that will make up its Office suite collection -- seven in all.

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction•  Packages And Pricing•  Inspecting The Interface•  More Interface Fun

•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

Depending on which version you choose, Office will include the basic applications that we've all come to know and (some of us, anyway) love, such as Word for word processing, Excel for spreadsheets, Access for databases, Outlook for e-mail and personal information management, and PowerPoint for presentation viewing and creating. Other available apps include Communicator (instant messaging), InfoPath (forms), OneNote (a notekeeping/journal app), and Publisher (desktop publishing).

Most of the improvements in the existing applications were detailed in our November review of Beta 1, "First Look: Microsoft Office 12 Beta 1."

A new addition since then is Office Groove, the result of Microsoft's 2005 acquisition of Groove Networks. Groove revolves around the concept of "collaborative work spaces," shared places where teams can work on documents, have threaded discussions, share schedules, and track who is working on what when. It is a simple and easily understood application that works very much like a traditional instant messaging product -- you have a list of contacts whom you can invite to a workspace using a Launchbar that lists your active, online, and offline contacts. There, they can access shared files, draw together on sketchbook pages, have a text or audio chat, and even have an online meeting.

Several upgraded products aren't included in any of the suite packages but are also being introduced as Office applications. For example, Microsoft Office Project, the project management application, won't be included with Office but is shipping separately in two versions: Standard and the enterprise-level Professional (which can connect with Microsoft Office Project Server 2007). Office Visio is the latest version of the excellent Visio flow-charting and diagramming application; it will also come in a Standard and more complex Professional version.

Finally, SharePoint Designer, a Web authoring application that takes the place of FrontPage, is aimed at the moderately to highly experienced site designer. According to Microsoft's literature, the shipping product will include more than 40 prebuilt SharePoint applications from the Microsoft Developer Network site.

Windows Office SharePoint Server 2007

Many of the new collaboration features in Office are not found directly in the Office client itself, but rather via Office SharePoint Server 2007.

Previously known as SharePoint Portal Server 2001 and then Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (Microsoft has a fondness for constantly changing product names), Office SharePoint Server 2007 includes a variety of features to make portal-building easier. These include preconfigured site templates, "social networking" features that can be used to build applications for helping employees communicate with one another, and "Colleagues and Memberships Web Parts," which allow employees to easily find people they know, or who have interests in common with them, as well as people who belong to the same distribution lists and groups.

Microsoft also tries to tackle the thorny problem of document management in Office SharePoint Server 2007. To that end, it offers new document management tools, including ones that handle automatic retention of documents and e-mail to comply with legislation and internal auditing rules. There are also a wide variety of new templates for building document libraries, and tools for managing those libraries.

And Microsoft has tried to tackle search as well. In the past, Windows SharePoint Services 2.0 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 used different search interfaces, which made searching confusing for users. Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Windows SharePoint Services now use the same implementation of Microsoft Search, which should lead to a more consistent search interface.There is much more new in Office SharePoint Server 2007 as well, including:

These tools can be integrated directly into various Office applications. For example, blogs can be authored from directly within Word. — Preston Gralla

Eight Suites
The various applications will appear in eight different Office versions, ranging from an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink enterprise suite to a bare-bones OEM iteration for new PCs:

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction•  Packages And Pricing•  Inspecting The Interface•  More Interface Fun•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007: The most application-complete of the seven, Enterprise will offer the full package, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, Communicator, Groove, and various integrated solution capabilities such as enterprise content management (ECM), electronic forms, and information rights and policy capabilities. It will be available only through volume licensing.Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007: A last-minute addition to the list, Ultimate gives retail customers almost the same package offered in the Enterprise suite. It does not include OneNote Mobile 2007 or Communicator, but does include Business Contact Manager, which adds complete small-business contact management capabilities to Outlook. The cost is $679.

Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007: Also available only through volume licensing, this slightly smaller package lacks Groove, OneNote, and Business Contact Manager.

Microsoft Office Professional 2007: This is the highest level of Office that will be available on store shelves. It will come without Communicator, Groove, InfoPath or OneNote, and will sell for $499 (upgrade price $329). It will include Business Contact Manager.

Microsoft Office Small Business 2007:
The small business version, at $449 ($279 upgrade) will include Word, Excel, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, PowerPoint, and Publisher.

Microsoft Office Standard 2007:
The standard edition of Office will include Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint. It will list for $399, with an upgrade price of $239.

Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007:

This bargain-basement retail version will ship with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and it replaces Outlook with One Note, presumably under the impression that students need a note-taking application rather than a personal information manager. The cost is $149; there is no upgrade price.

Microsoft Office Basic 2007 (OEM only):
Last, and also least, is the OEM-only version of Office, which comes with only Word, Excel, and Outlook.

Inspecting The Interface
The most obvious change in Office's applications, and the one that most people will be talking about, is the new interface that overlays many of Office's applications. If you've been following the descriptions in past coverage, for example, you'll know that Microsoft has replaced its previous icon and menu system with a new -- and much discussed -- interface.

Here's the story in a nutshell: Instead of the well-known drop-down file system that has been the basis for the Office interface ever since its beginning, each Office app now sports a "Ribbon" that runs across the top of the window and gives access to all the application's features. Features are collected into tabbed groupings; click on one of the tabs, which run across the top of the Ribbon, and you can see all the features that belong to that group.

For example, there are seven tabbed groups in Microsoft Word, including Home (which contains the more commonly used features, such as cut-and-paste and paragraph styling); Insert (for placing items such as headers/footers, tables, and illustrations within text); Page Layout (for setting margins, paragraph formatting, and design themes); References (footnotes, citations, captions); Mailings (mail merge, labels); Review (comments, change tracking, spelling and grammar); and View (document views, show/hide page elements, zoom). Add an element such as a table, and more context-sensitive feature tabs appear.

There has been a lot of skepticism about the usefulness – and, indeed, the necessity – of the Ribbon, and I have to admit that I was among the doubters. Why change something that works for many people? Because, according to Microsoft, the current interface has become bloated with too many menus.Jenson Harris, the lead program manager for the Microsoft Office user experience team, explained that the current system of toolbars has meant an exponential increase from two toolbars in Word 1.0 to 31 in Word 2003. "Conventional punditry was that people only use 5 percent of Office and that everything we need was in older versions," he said in a recent press event. "However, we found that real people said that people simply can't figure out how to use what features there are in there." He described the new interface as providing "one home for functionality."

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction•  Packages And Pricing•  Inspecting The Interface

•  More Interface Fun•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

When I first saw the new interface, I must admit I didn't think I could acclimate to it. In fact, I was so sure that there were going to be real problems with the lack of a traditional menu structure that I foresaw a mass desertion to, say, OpenOffice.

Now I'm not so sure. After working with several of the applications -- those I was very familiar with (such as Word) and those I seldom, if ever, use (such as Access) -- I found that I could more easily deal with features that I had found awkward in the past. For example, I was able to add an arrow to a Word document, change its design, and experiment with the way text wrapped around it with a lot more confidence than I had before.

There are a number of other interface changes that Microsoft hopes will prove attractive to both new and experienced users. One is what the company calls the Galleries, which are drop-down menus that illustrate the various style options available. When you hover your cursor over one of the images, you can see what effect it will have on your document, without having to actually implement the change first.

For example, if you highlight some text and pull down the styles menu, you can immediately see how each style would look if applied to the highlighted area. Want to insert a table? Click on the Insert tab, choose the Table group, and you get a drop-down window with an image of a table. Pull the cursor across the image, and the cells highlight; simultaneously, a table appears in your document. Got the right number of cells? Click, and the table is part of your document.

Another addition is the Mini Toolbar -- a floating, ghostly toolbar that offers a number of common formatting commands. The toolbar pops up when you highlight text; move your cursor toward the toolbar and it solidifies, move away from it and it goes away. (This would have solved a lot of problems in most of the horror films I've seen.)

More Interface Fun
So where exactly in Office does the new interface appear? A document on the Microsoft Web site states: "The new Microsoft Office user interface is designed to make the full range of advanced features provided by the Microsoft Office authoring applications more accessible to more people. For this reason, the new UI will be used in the following 2007 Microsoft Office applications: Microsoft Office Word 2007, Microsoft Office Excel 2007, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007, Microsoft Office Access 2007, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 (not the shell, only the authoring portion: mail composition, calendar, tasks and contacts)."

Yes, that's right. Parts of Outlook use the old interface, while other parts use the new interface, which is odd.

What Microsoft doesn't explain is why neither the Publisher desktop publishing program nor the OneNote note-taking application (both of which seem to fit the "authoring application" requirement) has the new interface.

Here are a few final impressions about the new interface:

Help Is Out Of The Way

One change I do not welcome is the way the application help is now organized. The help box that was in the upper-right-hand corner of Office 2003 apps is gone. Instead, there is an unassuming question mark (shown here at actual size) in that corner that you can click on to get help either online or off -- which means several more clicks before you get to an answer. In addition, Microsoft's Task Pane (a sidebar in current versions that offers help or lists of features) is missing. The Task Pane was, as far as I was concerned, a great way to get help on complex operations -- it pushed the main window over, but kept it visible, so you could follow Help directions on a feature without having to constantly switch windows.

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction•  Packages And Pricing•  Inspecting The Interface

•  More Interface Fun•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

On the other hand, Microsoft has made at least one change that will gladden the hearts of those like me who dislike taking their fingers off the keyboard to do something as time-consuming as reach for a mouse. In the last version, there was no easy way to use the keyboard for features that you didn't already know the codes for. Microsoft has added prompts to the interface -- hit the Alt key, and small boxes with numbers and letters appear next to or on top of any useable feature in the Ribbon. So, for example, I hit Alt and was able to add a new comment to my document by hitting R (for Review) and C (for New Comment). It's a nice way to add reminders, and quite honestly, is a faster way of learning keyboard commands than going through the menus.

There is one aspect of the new interface that experienced users may not be able to accept: the inability to remove or change the position of the icons on the Ribbon. Microsoft has provided a Quick Access Toolbar that lives either above or directly below the Ribbon, to which users can add their favorite features. However, users who like to tweak their own interfaces might get testy over the lack of flexibility in this area.And the placement of the various features is not always instinctive. For example, I found the new interface fairly useless when I tried to figure out how to get rid of smart quotes in Word. And when I went looking for the Options menu and went to the large Office Button on the upper-left corner (which takes the place of the File menu header), I couldn't find the expected Options choice. It turned out that, instead of being among the list of commands (such as Open, Save, Send, etc.), it was nearly hidden within the lower margin of the drop-down window.

Open XML: Another Bone Of Contention
The new interface isn't the only controversial area that Microsoft will be contending with. Microsoft has been championing its Open XML file format against the open-source OpenDocument Format (ODF).

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction•  Packages And Pricing•  Inspecting The Interface

•  More Interface Fun•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

Microsoft's XML format is very much in evidence in Office; it is the new default for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, for example. There is no doubt that it can be very useful; it allows for changes within zipped files, for instance, and lets users tag information (such as a logo) in documents so that it can be re-used easily by organizations. Open XML is also behind Word's new ability to look for and remove hidden metadata or other information (such as, say, Comment fields) that you'd rather not send to a rival company by mistake.

However, ODF was recently ratified by the International Standards Organization (ISO), while Open XML has yet to be accepted. Microsoft has petitioned the competing ECMA standards body for approval of Open XML.

More Info

See our review of Beta 1 for details about improved features in Word, Access, Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint in 2007 Office.

Microsoft Office is the tool that thousands of people use every day to get their work done. It is always a danger when this kind of tool is radically altered in an effort to keep it current and make it better -- and to keep it competitive in a market that is beginning to offer a variety of free or inexpensive online and open-source alternatives (such as OpenOffice).

Now that the new beta is out and available for download, Microsoft should soon be getting an idea of whether its gamble will pay off. The new interface will alarm quite a few long-time users; but if my own experience is any yardstick, once the initial shock is over, most people will be pleasantly surprised.0

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