Looking forward to the 2007 Microsoft Office System

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Microsoft Office

I think I’ve been attending too many Microsoft events recently. Not only do the presenters know me personally, but I’m not hearing much that’s new. To be fair to Microsoft, that’s because two of the biggest product launches this year will be Windows Vista (for which I’m a beta tester) and Exchange Server 2007 (for which I was extremely fortunate to spend two days learning about in depth last month). There are many other products planned for launch in 2007 but those two are the ones that will mean most to me. I spent yesterday at the Microsoft Technical Roadshow – an event that I’ve enjoyed in previous years (although the multiple-track format has been dropped this year due to budget restrictions) – and even though much I’d seen much of the content at previous events, I was particularly impressed with Paul Brombley’s session on the 2007 Microsoft Office System (Office 2007 – formerly codenamed Office 12).

I’ve not done anything with the new version of Office (and can’t think of much that I do with Office 2003 that I didn’t already do with XP, 2000, 97 or even 95 – except that 95 didn’t have Outlook and that I could do more with 2003 if my employer made better use of SharePoint products and technologies) but I had heard of the new ribbon user interface.

Now maybe my comments about a lack of new features in recent Office versions were slightly disingenuous – the new features are there but it probably means that I still work in the same way I did in 1995. Whatever my thoughts are on Office 2003, what I saw and heard yesterday has inspired me to install the latest Office 2007 beta, if only to look more closely at the following features (which are just the ones that grabbed my attention – there are many more too):

In Outlook:

  • A new To-Do bar, which brings much of the old Outlook Today functionality into a sidebar, including upcoming appointments, tasks, and flagged items.
  • RSS integration.
  • Enhanced calendaring functionality (e.g. the ability to overlay multiple calendars – not many of my colleagues maintain their Exchange calendars, but I do keep separate work and personal diaries).
  • Tasks linked integrated with the calendar and assigned a time of day (including those from Project Server).
  • Improved search including query hit highlighting.

In PowerPoint:

  • Server-based slide libraries that can be tagged for use by others and alerts issued if updated versions of the slides are available.

In Word:

  • A mini-bar (I do hope Microsoft changes that name), close to highlighted text, that provides shortcuts to common actions (e.g. increase font size).

In Excel:

  • A zoom slider on the bottom right of the main working area.
  • The ability to publish parts of a report and therefore protect the calculations.
  • Fast table formatting with automatically selected data, alternate shaded lines, frozen frames on the column names and auto-filters.
  • Simple pivot table creation with enhanced conditional formatting and data bars on values.

The new ribbon interface (or, as Microsoft like to refer to it, the “results-oriented user interface”), which provides:

  • Context-sensitive links to commands, expanding and contracting the visible functionality in accordance with window size.
  • A preview of the effects of a command before it is issued (saving many undo commands), e.g. when applying a new style.
  • The ability to insert a new section (e.g. a cover page) from a gallery as a single command.
  • A new graphics engine, which makes it easy to add and edit attractive graphics with impact (not clip-art).

Other changes include:

  • FrontPage is now called SharePoint Designer (possibly reflecting the fact that it’s useless for designing standards-compliant web pages for use on any other platform).
  • Support for Windows Workflow Foundation services to provide document approval workflow.
  • Integration with InfoPath forms to capture metadata as part of the document authoring process as well as InfoPath in a browser (and not just Internet Explorer) and within Outlook (e.g. as a custom form).
  • Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) integration:
    • The ability to create basic Gantt charts in WSS using a webpart and link back to Project Server.
    • Document repositories with records management.
    • The ability to publish Excel data in WSS and view it in a web browser, natively within Excel, or programmatically within a custom application.
    • Dashboards, personal report centres and enterprise-wide searches for business intelligence.
  • Integrated communications (i.e. Office Communicator).

Apart from the new interface, probably the most significant change is the new OpenXML document format. Despite being proposed as a royalty-free, open standard, OpenXML has been criticised by supporters of the competing open-source open document format (ODF). Compact and robust, the format is actually zipped XML, so can be easily integrated with many business applications. Microsoft will continue to support the binary formats but OpenXML is the way forwards, with migration tools for the new formats as well as free add-ins for Office 2000, 2002 (XP) and 2003 to allow legacy Office versions to use OpenXML files.Microsoft is currently predicting an October 2006 release date for Office 2007. That means that although volume licensing customers will be able to get hold of it sooner, general availability will be in early 2007. Initially available as a 32-bit product, there will be a 64-bit edition later (64-bit adoption on the desktop is still lagging behind servers). In the meantime, there’s a 2007 Microsoft Office system preview website with more information including a comparison between the various product suites.

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