Office 2003 is XML-friendly

With Office 2003, Microsoft Corp. finally gets it: Workers value ease of use and Internet-friendliness more than fancy bells and whistles.

Unlike its earlier suites, in which Office applications differed slightly from app to app, Microsoft deliberately has given the new Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access an identical look for easier switching among programs.

The GCN Lab recently tried out the first and second beta versions of the suite, which Microsoft plans to release this summer.

Outlook'the program that has changed the most'presents data by level of importance. The interface has four panes of varying size.

The largest pane displays an e-mail message in a letter-size frame to the right. Users can edit and save it as a Word document, which is similar to the way Office 2002 already functions. Also, e-mail messages are spaced and indented like business letters, which makes them easier to read and process.

The chronologically arranged in-box, in the middle pane, can display messages by various attributes. At the left, other windows aid in navigating the hard drive and Outlook folders, as well as archiving materials.

The Search Folders feature organizes and categorizes e-mail for fast access or archiving. A default Follow-up Folder works in combination with a feature called Quick Flagging to move important messages aside so that unwanted ones can be block-deleted without accidentally killing important others.

Data sharing

Office 2003 also has more compatibility with SharePoint Team Services, in anticipation of increased project collaboration. For example, users can now share each other's calendars, and multiple calendars can remain open simultaneously.

The most notable difference in the new suite's versions of Excel and Access is Extensible Markup Language compatibility. Users can make what Microsoft calls workbook models to swap data to and from XML data sources. Excel 2003 can export to or receive XML data from user-specified databases or schemas.

Access 2002 placed strict limits on altering XML data when importing or exporting; files had to follow Microsoft's schema. But Microsoft has made these operations less finicky in Access 2003. Users can customize Extensible Stylesheet Language files when importing or exporting data.

The fewest changes were made to Word and PowerPoint. But that's not to say the changes aren't significant.

Word 2003 has clearer text and formats for reading documents than earlier versions. A new Reading Layout Mode fits larger text pages onto the screen, and shorter lines make reading a multipage document easier on the eyes. Edited comments are also simpler to manipulate compared with Word 2002.

PowerPoint presentations can be saved directly to CD-ROM. Better integration with Windows Media Player lets users play videos at full-screen size and control audio and video better. Viewer software lets users see PowerPoint presentations on systems that have older versions of PowerPoint or no version at all.

PowerPoint also accepts handwritten tablet PC annotations for translation to any PC running Word 2003 or PowerPoint 2003.

Although the new Office was impressive, I did find a bad bug in both beta versions.

On the GCN Lab network, with one system running Office 2003 and the others running Office 2002, Outlook 2003 deleted incoming e-mail and even existing messages from the in-boxes of the Outlook 2002 machines.

It seemed like virus behavior, but the lab's security software reported none. Furthermore, the deletions began every time I opened Outlook 2003 and ended as soon as I closed it.

Microsoft techs said it was the first they'd heard of this flaw but noted that bugs are currently being worked out in preparation for the suite's final release.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is revamping the Office portion of its Web site to resemble the new suite. It will provide interactive training exercises, research materials and specification sheets as well as user assistance similar to Web bulletins'all just a couple of mouse clicks away from any of the suite's programs.

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