Inside the Next Microsoft Office

Microsoft Office 12 (beta)

Performance: A

Ease of use: B+

Features: A+

Price: Unavailable

Reviewer's comments: If it were shipping now, this product would be worthy of a Reviewer's Choice award. It's a significant improvement over previous Office versions and will have agencies thinking of new ways to be more productive.

Contact:Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., (425) 882-8080, www.microsoft.com

The GCN Lab pores over the new beta version and likes the suite's ease of use, workflow features

When Microsoft Corp. says it's releasing a new version of something, it usually means, at best, a dressing-up of the old version with minor enhancements (see Office 2000), or at worst, something with no improvements that actually makes life harder (see Windows ME).

But occasionally, Microsoft puts out a new version that is an improvement on every level. That looks to be the case with the new Office suite, known for now as Microsoft Office 12. The GCN Lab got its hands on the limited release Beta 1 of Office 12. The Beta 2 is due out soon and the final product is scheduled for release around the time Windows Vista ships, toward the end of 2006.

Rather than cosmetic improvements, the new Office sports upgrades at the most basic levels, and they're changes for the better. One area of improvement over earlier editions is the increased integration of its component parts. Microsoft accomplishes this in many ways, but the most important is the implementation of new Office Extensible Markup Language formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.

Having a basic standard for these documents presents several advantages. First, the standard format allows for increased reliability in data recovery. Also, Office XML formats use compression technologies so files tend to take up much less disk space. Finally, interoperability between these three programs improves drastically because, in many ways, a Word document is an Excel document is a PowerPoint document. And since XML is a popular standard for many Web and computer applications, compatibility with external data sources is sure to be better.

The user interface is a vast improvement. The primary element is the 'ribbon,' which is a hybrid of the menus and toolbars of older versions. There are several tabs across the top of the document window. Each opens a different bar that has all of the functions pertinent to one area, such as text editing or object insertion. For more complex functions, clicking on the ribbon will produce a drop-down gallery with the necessary choices.

Pretty much every function is on one of these ribbons, with the exception of those in the File menu, which is still in the same place. The number of ribbon tabs never gets too large because you're only shown the ones that are pertinent to what you're doing. Office only shows the Picture Tools tab when you have a picture selected, for instance.

Live Preview is another way that Microsoft has made it easier to change document elements. Previously, if you wanted to change the font of a piece of text, you actually had to change the font in order to see what it looked like within the whole document. But with Live Preview, the selected text changes in appearance as you mouse over font or format selections, so you can see how it will look before actually making the change.

The core components

Word has long been the backbone of Office, so any major overhaul of the suite must include improvements to this essential element. Microsoft has added more editing options, which allowed us to make diagrams, charts and complex mathematical formulas with minimal hassle.

Word also now lets you more easily create 'building blocks' for your documents, so you can be sure you are pulling in the same disclaimers, cover pages and sidebars throughout. What's more, the built-in ability to save documents as XML Paper Specification (XPS) and Portable Document Format files make it much easier to share documents.

Probably the most impressive feature of the new Word is the Document Inspector, which lets you detect and remove unwanted comments, hidden text or other identifiable information. This type of 'document scrubbing' is becoming a hot topic in many organizations.

Another workhorse of the Office lineup has always been Excel. In addition to a more powerful charting engine, there are several notable improvements. For one thing, Excel 12 supports much larger data sheets than prior versions. It also has powerful support for working with tables. New tools allow you to format, expand and even pivot them, so that you can find the answers you need more easily. Microsoft has also created a series of business intelligence tools, which can automatically, for example, color-code cells in a financial report to highlight areas that require attention.

Outlook also gets a facelift. Although it doesn't have the new ribbon interface that the core programs have, it does include new features for better interoperability and organization. For instance, a new To-Do Bar organizes all flagged e-mails and tasks in one place, and can even pull in tasks from Microsoft Project and Access. A new search function can scour all Outlook data sources'e-mail, calendar, contacts'at once.

Another nice Outlook 12 feature: the ability to send out a snapshot of your calendar. This makes it easier to share schedules among users of disparate systems.

Probably Outlook's greatest improvement is its near-total integration with SharePoint Services, Microsoft's enterprise collaboration platform. You can connect to SharePoint calendars, documents, contacts or tasks right from Outlook, and you can edit anything live, as if you were connected to SharePoint through your browser.

Better workflow

Microsoft has many more tricks up its sleeve in Office 12. OneNote, the note taking and content organization program, and InfoPath, the forms processing app, are more fully integrated into the suite. The ability to process InfoPath forms through the Web is itself a big improvement. You can also now route forms from directly within Outlook.

Microsoft has not yet released pricing information for Office 12, but we expect it will be comparable to past versions. Interestingly, it's apparent from the significant workflow changes that any enterprise upgrade will be less about getting the latest features and more about a strategy for using those features to improve the way an organization works.

Overall, the improvements to Office 12's user interface and the introduction of new components impressed us. Keep in mind, though, that we're still in beta mode here and reserve the right to judge the product differently once it ships. Although we don't expect Microsoft to significantly change or remove the fundamental features that make Office 12 attractive, you never know.

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