Software shapes up for the office of the future

Software shapes up for the office of the future

Latest editions from Microsoft, Corel and Adobe furnish users with enhanced command of their words, pictures and documents



Third of a series

Every administrator knows that a network is only as good as its software. Most users are painfully aware of it, too, especially when they must cope with old or homegrown programs that don't function well within a modern network. At best, clinging to familiar old software means missing out on timesaving features. At worst, it means frequent crashes and lost work.


The past two issues have described how the GCN Lab tested hardware and software for a prototype office of the future, not only at work but at home and on the road.

This week we look at the brains behind the brawn: the software running on the network.

The software programs reviewed in our first installment about the office of the future [GCN, June 18, Page 40] dealt with network monitoring and security. Here, we'll look at several programs that make your workday easier and more productive.

We tested two fresh office suite releases, one image manipulation tool and one document distribution component. All the programs worked well with the PC and mobile platforms we set up in the first two reviews. Any software that could not 'play nicely' was thrown out.

Microsoft Corp. in the past has done a lukewarm job of upgrading its market-leading Office suite. Many Office updates have been cosmetic and not sufficient to justify buying the new version, except in specific circumstances where a patch was included.

Installing the newest version of Office was like getting a new coat of paint on the house'nice but not exciting.

Things have changed with Microsoft Office XP, however. XP, which stands for eXPerience, is totally different from previous versions of Office'but not so different that you can't find your way around.

XP makes judicious use of so-called Smart Tags, which appear in the form of small lightning bolts whenever they try to do some 'thinking' for the user.


Microsoft Office XP Professional

Microsoft Corp.;

Redmond, Wash.;

tel. 800-426-9400

Price: $579; $329 upgrade

+Smart Tags make Office easily customizable
+PowerPoint easier to use
+Access database operations faster
-Fairly expensive

For example, if you type 'chicago' and Word XP automatically capitalizes the C for you, a Smart Tag appears. You can ignore it, and it will go away after a few seconds, or you can click on it for control options.

The options are to do nothing, to tell the program to change the one instance of 'Chicago' back to 'chicago,' to stop correcting the word for the rest of the current document or never to correct 'chicago' again.

Generally you would want to spell the Windy City with a capital C, of course, but let's say Word XP automatically does something more annoying: indenting the start of each new paragraph. Maybe the tabs violate your organization's style.

Just tell Word XP never again to put in the tabs. After a document or two, you will have completely customized Word to suit your work style. This level of customization was possible in the past, but you had to dig down pretty far to find it.

The new Word XP interface is much easier to navigate than those of earlier versions. First-time users should have no problem with the word processor's formerly serpentine menus. Experienced users are also in for a treat.

The most basic change is the inclusion of highlighted menus throughout. When you place your cursor over almost anything that can be pushed, clicked or selected, the active area highlights. If you hover long enough, a little box appears with a short description of what the icon, button or selection does. This teaches users about the interface while they work.

The other Office programs have also changed for the better. PowerPoint has a lot of new effects to make old presentations stand out. A wizard simplifies slide creation, even if you have never done it before.

Ever heard of a multislide PowerPoint presentation designed in 10 minutes? It will become commonplace among XP users.

If you have Access databases from Office 95 or 97, you must convert them to work under the new Access. Conversion, though automatic, has an occasional glitch. You might have to re-enter some data, though in detailed tests with large databases we maintain in the lab, 99.5 percent of the data changed over smoothly.

Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect Office has been No. 2 in the suite market for some time. Although consumers have largely abandoned WordPerfect in favor of Word, many federal employees still swear by WordPerfect.

WordPerfect Suite 2002 is a cut above previous versions. Its strengths have intensified, and the word processor is completely customizable.


WordPerfect Office 2002 Professional Edition

Corel Corp.; Ottawa;

tel. 800-772-6735

Price: $489; $289 upgrade

+Variables for easy editing of long documents
+Tight integration with PDF files
+Dictionary accessible from all apps
+Compatible with Word

A function called Variables lets you add a place-holder at multiple locations inside a document for later changes. Say you're in the third draft of something. You can write a memo about your progress, using 'Version 3.1' as the variable. Later, if you want to send the same memo but change the version number, you simply change the Variables tab to 'Version 4.1.' Every occurrence will be replaced, which is a joy with long documents.

WordPerfect 2002 can easily publish documents in Adobe Portable Document Format. And many WordPerfect users' favorite old standby, Reveal Codes, still shows exactly why the program is behaving as it does. Skilled coders can even manipulate the program at this level. If you need to, you can open Word files in WordPerfect and save documents in Word format.

The other components in the suite also have had a makeover with emphasis on usability under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998. Disabled users, for example, can assign high-contrast colors or make visual cues replace sound events'the screen can flash whenever an error message beeps, for example. That could even eliminate the need for speakers on any users' desks.

One of the best features is integration of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary throughout the suite. Besides standard spell-check and thesaurus functions, you can look up a word anywhere to make sure you use the correct one.

WordPerfect 2002 is compatible with Office XP, so if you like WordPerfect better than Word and want to use it in an office full of XP users, you can. Probably no one will know the difference.

Adobe Systems Inc. is known for image- and document-editing software that is of high quality but which can be difficult to use and costly. But Adobe will save you money in the long run if your office uses lots of pictures for the Web or elsewhere.

The complexity and price of Adobe Photoshop 6.0 and Acrobat 5.0 don't seem likely to change in the office of the future. What's different is their image quality and overall control.

New rectangle, polygon, rounded rectangle and line tools make it possible to create and edit more sophisticated shapes. Photoshop 6.0 has taken on some of the functions of Adobe Illustrator such as invert, add, subtract and restrict.

These commands build complex shapes out of simple contours. Like Acrobat, Photoshop 6.0 has full Portable Document Format support. That means you can save transparency, vector and layer objects as PDF files.

The most noticeable difference between Photoshop 5.5 and 6.0 is crisp, cool picture and text effects. With text-formatting control, you can easily manipulate and warp text. A new Layer Styles box lets you choose effects for the current layer and see which effects have been applied. When the layer is saved, it appears in the new styles palette at the right of the screen.


Adobe Photoshop 6.0

Adobe Systems Inc.; San Jose, Calif.; tel. 408-536-6000

Price: $600; $200 upgrade

+New management tools extend image editing
+Compatible with other Adobe products and Web apps

Some other effects in Photoshop are interactive'for example, you can tug and pull any part of an image to distort it with a command called Liquifying. You also can manually rotate and shrink an image.

The documentation recommends selecting and immobilizing sections of the image to focus on areas to be changed and leave the others untouched.

Photoshop 6.0, like its predecessors, takes time to learn and is difficult to master. But 6.0 has easier management. For example, you can personalize the tool box and save it in a preset manager that accesses built-in library files. Built-in and custom libraries can be shared with other users of Photoshop 6.0.

Some new features are Web-specific. For instance, you can slice out Web graphics and place them directly into Photoshop. A new technology binds the outer edges of the slice with a Photoshop layer and changes automatically with any alterations to the layer.

Although $609 for Photoshop 6.0 or $200 to upgrade is expensive, the benefits are well worth the price, particularly if your agency uses digital cameras and needs to fine-tune a lot of images.

Since the invention of the printing press, text dissemination of ideas has been limited by language and distance. Now the Internet has eliminated the distance factor, and the remaining obstruction isn't human languages but computer languages.


Adobe Acrobat 5.0

Adobe Systems Inc.; San Jose, Calif.; tel. 408-536-6000

Price: $250; $100 upgrade

+Easy to use
+ Reliable
+Online document editing

Converting documents to PDF keeps their contents intact but readable by anyone with a free Acrobat reader. For security, Acrobat 5.0 imposes 128-bit encryption with password protection. The user can choose to downgrade the encryption to 40-bit for backward compatibility with the previous Acrobat version.

You can now remove any image from a PDF file and save it in an image format such as TIFF, PNG or JPEG. Similarly, any PDF can be saved directly into an image format such as JPEG.

Acrobat now performs spell checks and simple computations. These operations bear a striking resemblance to those in Microsoft Excel and Word, but Adobe has gone even further with customizable toolbars just like those in Microsoft Office.

At $250, Acrobat is among the least expensive of Adobe's products and well worth the money. The security and document editing features put Acrobat way ahead of its time, and an upgrade is only $100.

Our office of the future is now fully furnished with hardware, mobile computing platforms and torture-tested software. All the products we have mentioned are available through government reseller channels, and they work well together.

At least in terms of the office, science fiction has become science fact.


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