Review: A Comprehensive Look At Microsoft Office 2007

With Microsoft Office 2007 finalized and almost ready to ship, what does Microsoft have in store for Office users? We took a close look at the new features, new versions, and new apps.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 17, 2006

49 Min Read

Microsoft Office 2007 is certainly bigger than any previous version of the best-selling productivity suite. Whether it is better is a subject of some controversy.

With this version, Microsoft has completely revamped the familiar Office interface. Gone are the toolbars, the drop-down menus, and the side-of-the-window Task Panes. In their place, Office users who upgrade will see the now-famous (or infamous) Ribbon. Stretching across the top of several of the new applications (a few, such as Publisher, still offer the older interface), the Ribbon divides features into categories which, Microsoft hopes, will make it easier for users to find some of the tools that were previously hidden inside the menus.

The Ribbon isn't the only change. There are a large number of new features (and a few old ones that have been dropped). The very structure of the files have been changed to allow for the Open XML file formats. And, of course, the suite has been optimized to work with Microsoft's new Vista operating system.

Office 2007 expands on the "family of products" idea to include a number of increasingly distant cousins, as well. The Office brand has been extended to include a number of server and client applications that spread the focus of Office 2007 beyond personal productivity (i.e. Word/Excel/Powerpoint) to network-based collaboration with Groove, InfoPath, and SharePoint Designer. The sheer volume of code means that Microsoft has had to offer more versions of Office 2007 as a way of tailoring it to its various markets.

According to Microsoft, the new version will go to OEMs on November 30th for inclusion with new PCs, and appear on retail shelves on January 30, 2007. It will be interesting to see how long it takes users of past versions to warm up to this one. Some accommodations, like options to save files in the existing file formats -- .DOC, .XSL, .PPT -- will cushion the blow. But because Word 2007 will be the only version available for Vista, and Vista within a very few years will be the only supported version of Windows, reluctant holdouts will sooner or later be forced to upgrade.

Eight Flavors Of Office

Microsoft Office 2007 makes more applications available in more variations -- eight altogether -- than ever before. These will range from the bargain-basement OEM-only version of Office, which will offer only Word, Excel, and Outlook, to the application-complete Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007, which will include Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, Publisher, Access, InfoPath, Communicator, Groove, and various integrated solution capabilities -- and which will only be available through volume licensing.

Between these extremes there are a variety of combinations. Some of the choices for which apps go with which groups are a bit puzzling: For example, the $149 Home and Student version includes Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint (under the assumption, presumably, that parents do a lot of presentations), but leaves out Outlook. The next version up, Office Standard, exchanges OneNote for Outlook and costs $250 more.

Confused yet? Microsoft has dedicated part of its site to trying to explain what apps will be in what suites, and how much it will cost you. It will be interesting to see which versions actually succeed, both with enterprise and with the public.

So what's all the fuss about? We asked three reviewers to make a close and critical examination of the various applications included in Microsoft Office 2007 -- Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, OneNote, Publisher, Groove, and InfoPath -- and report back on the pros and cons of the new suite. Their reports, impressions, and opinions follow -- along with an image gallery showing what the new applications will look like.

The final verdict? That it really all depends on what you will need from your day-to-day applications in the era of Vista, connectivity, and Web 2.0, and whether you can adjust to the new or prefer to stick with the old.

With Word 2007, Microsoft has made the broadest and probably the most constructive set of changes to Word -- and Office -- since tear-off toolbars came along. Word is one of the most widely-used pieces of consumer software ever devised, so it’s inevitable that the sheer depth and breadth of the changes made to Word are going to spawn at least as many opponents as adherents.

Longtime users and people who are fond of bending and shaping Office to fit their work habits may be deeply frustrated, because some of the things they did before are simply no longer possible in the same forms. At the same time -- and this cannot be dismissed out of hand -- Word has introduced some genuinely useful new ways of doing things. If you’re a new user, or you go to the program as if it were a completely new creation from the ground up, you may like what you see, and find some of your old work habits were worth abandoning after all.

Coping With The Menu
The single biggest change, as you’ve probably heard by now, is the new menu system. The old drop-down menus and toolbars are now gone; in their place is the "ribbon," a tab-like interface with all the most commonly-used commands placed right up front. The keyboard equivalents are available as well -- press the Alt key and all of the ribbon items are marked with their corresponding Alt key commands. The Alt commands are markedly different from what they were in 2003, but their Ctrl equivalents are still the same (Ctrl-F for Find and Replace, for instance).

The ribbon also changes with context: if you click on an image, for instance, a “Format” tab appears in the ribbon, and a context indicator appears above the ribbon. Switching focus to something else resets the tab. If you don’t like seeing the whole ribbon all the time, you can set it to automatically minimize to something that resembles the old drop-down menu bar by double-clicking on it. The whole idea is to present the user with no more than there absolutely has to be at any given time, and in that sense the ribbon works beautifully.

There is, however, no "compatibility mode" or way to restore the old interface, and Microsoft has stood firm on this. Office gurus who loved to create their own toolbars and stick them anywhere they pleased will be incensed. The only concessions to the old toolbar system are a single customizable toolbar that’s more or less locked to the top of the Word window, and a customizable status bar at the bottom. It’s frustrating that I can’t stick a toolbar with many of my most common commands (not the stuff Microsoft thinks is important) down at the bottom of the window where I can get to it with minimal mouse movements.

Perhaps in a future iteration Microsoft will back off a bit on this stance and allow a little more flexibility in how you can handle the Quick Access bar, but as it stands now it feels like an incentive to not use the whole toolbar metaphor in the first place. You can still assign custom to any command or macro, though -- something most Office junkies, myself included, did habitually.

Over time, though, these frustrations came to feel less like deal-breakers than they seemed at first. I worked with Word for a solid week, writing not just this review but a number of other documents in it. I found over time I was paying less attention to the program and more attention to my work, and I think that was precisely the idea.

Getting Subtle
In fact, Word 2007 is far less habitually intrusive on the whole. Clippy and all such related annoyances are completely gone; instead, the program uses subtle cues rather than overt ones to attract your attention. If you highlight a block of text, for instance, a text-formatting hover menu appears, but it’s heavily faded out; you only use it if you actually hover over it, and if you don’t want it, it vanishes as soon as you shift focus to something else. I didn’t use this menu much, but it was quite handy when I did need it, and the rest of the time it wasn’t obtrusive at all.

Another genuinely useful new feature is "Live Preview," which allows people to see the results of a given action in real-time, such as changing the formatting of a table. Not everything works with Live Preview, though, so it’s not always immediately obvious what will render with it and what won’t. One element that uses Live Preview is "SmartArt" -- pre-designed graphics that are used to convey information, such as hierarchy charts or Venn diagrams. When you insert a SmartArt object, any changes are reflected in real time. In the past I’ve resorted to a third-party program to design such things, but Word 2007 drastically cuts down on the need to do this, and the results are attractive and useful.

Earlier versions of Word introduced styles for paragraphs; Word 2007 takes the idea a step further with document themes, a collection of font, color and layout choices that can be applied to a document instantly. This is another Live Preview function, so you can open up the Theme browser (Word 2007 comes packaged with about 20) and see the results of applying a particular theme to the whole document by simply hovering the mouse over your choice.

The under-the-hood changes to Word are also intriguing. Microsoft’s new .DOCX document format treats each document as a .ZIP archive containing multiple files: an XML file for the document itself, copies of attached objects, and so on. The format’s compressed, so it takes less space than its binary predecessors, and you can always unpack it manually by renaming the .DOCX file extension to .ZIP and using any ZIP-compatible archiving tool (including the archive wizard in Explorer). Older Word files can be edited as is, but Word also has a built-in compatibility checker to alert you if a file might pose a conversion problem before you convert it.

Word 2003 had blogging functions available through an add-on, but they’re now native to 2007 and have been refined a great deal. Said feature is essentially a version of the standalone Microsoft Live Writer application, so it also works as an impromptu generator for clean HTML. Most popular blogging services are directly supported -- Windows Live Spaces, Blogger, TypePad, plus any blogging system that supports a number of popular discoverability protocols.

External add-ons from Microsoft let you save directly to PDF or the new XPS (XML Paper Specification) portable-document formats. And as far as I can tell, Word 2007 requires no more memory or CPU than Word 2003 did; it ran snappily enough on a 512MB Windows XP test machine and didn’t give me any noticeable performance problems even when dealing with a document heavy with images or other objects.

In the end, I’m of two minds. I’m not happy that 2007 represents such a radical departure from the old ways, especially for someone who’s spent so much time customizing Word over the years. I also can’t ignore the fact that not having a whole clutter of toolbars and command options staring me in the face keeps my mind off Word itself, and back on the work I can do with it. That by itself is a huge step in the right direction for Word, and possibly for software as a whole.

--Serdar Yagulalp

Excel has long been known for its computational might, but in Excel 2007, the focus is on making the software, and the results of your calculations, easier to understand.

No doubt the first thing you’ll notice is the revised interface. As with Word, Access, PowerPoint, and Outlook, Excel’s new interface overhaul is designed to put more features at your fingertips, bringing commands that were buried three levels down in dialog boxes and menus up front to the ribbon interface. Like its siblings, drop-down galleries and quick preview help you can see your formatting changes immediately, and the wide variety of designer-quality formatting options give your charts and tables a very professional look. That’s to be expected -- many of the Excel improvements Microsoft touts have to do with visualizing your data.

On the other hand, some features have been annoyingly shuttled off to the side. For example, to use the macro recorder, you have to explicitly turn on the Developer tab, something I had to probe the Help system to figure out.

More is better, of course, and in Excel 2007 you’ll get more -- much more. Excel will now support 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns. Dozens of other limits have been removed (you can use an unlimited number of format types in a single workbook -- up from an already huge 4,000), and a formula can now refer to as many cells as your system’s memory can accommodate (up from 8,000). Memory management has been doubled to 2 GB, which should increase computational speed for larger worksheets.

There’s more help with data manipulation, too. For example, you are no longer limited to three levels of sort -- you can now sort by up to 64 levels, and sorts can be performed based on cell color, font color, or icon, in addition to the traditional cell contents. AutoFilter, useful for selecting rows that meet specific criteria, can now display more than 1,000 items in its drop-down list, and you can select multiple items to filter just by clicking on them. If you have duplicate rows, a new Remove Duplicates feature lets you remove rows containing duplicates based on the column(s) you specify.

Better Looking Graphics, Tables
Themes -- a collection of colors, fonts, fill effects, and other visual properties -- are shared with other Office applications, so a chart you create in Excel and paste into Word will have the same visual properties as other images in Word. Themes are reflected in tables, charts, shapes, SmartArt diagrams, and even PivotTables.

Styles, familiar to Word users, now come to Excel in a big way. Styles are used to format cells, controlling the font, font size, and background. You can also use conditional formatting to apply a special kind of style that defines cell backgrounds and icons. Microsoft calls this visual annotation -- it’s just another technique to indicate a cell’s value with an icon, color, or bar.

With Excel 2007’s new user interface you can quickly create, format, and expand an Excel table to organize the data. Table formatting is easier, too. What I really like is how Excel now replaces column headings (A, B, C, etc.) with the header row -- so as you scroll through a long table, the column headings are replaced with the column headings from the table’s header row. It’s a nice alternative to having to freeze a row as you scroll through a table, then unfreeze it when you’re done.

Also new in tables are calculated columns, which are similar to array formulas. Add a table, choose a cell in a column, and enter a formula, and the formula is automatically copied to all cells in the same column -- no Fill or Copy command needed. In addition, adding a Total Row, then specifying what each column’s total should be (sum, average, etc. or your own formula), is incredibly easy to set up.

In Excel 2003 you could apply table formats, such as alternating row colors, but once you added a row, the color patterns were destroyed; you had to reapply the AutoFormat. In Excel 2007, formatting is maintained when you update a table. Add, remove, or move rows, including filtering or hiding rows or columns, and the alternate coloring is -- at long last -- preserved.

Charts, Graphs, And PivotTables
One of Excel’s strengths is its charting ability, and the new layouts bring the charting look into the 21st century. There are subtle changes, such as shadows and bevels, plus new color combinations that finally give your data the professional look they deserve.

While many elements in a graph are easier to control -- you can quickly change colors or apply a theme, add 3D effects, insert a legend, and superimpose a trend line -- charting is still not as simple as it should be. Some tasks remain mind-numbingly difficult, such as adding a secondary vertical axis. (A wizard or a new chart type would be so much simpler.) The good news is that once you have a chart formatted the way you want, you can save it as a chart template and apply it to other charts.

PivotTables – that powerful analysis tool that is little understood and thus underused -- gets a makeover. The new interface lets you check boxes in addition to dragging and dropping fields within the task pane, making things a bit easier. You can add computations (sums, averages, etc.), sort data, and filter entries more directly, too.

Staying Compatible
A compatibility checker tells you if your workbook contains features that previous versions of Excel won’t support. But be careful -- you’ll need to remember to save a document in Excel 2003 format to maintain compatibility with other users until the new 2007 file format becomes the standard. While Microsoft has released a converter to read 2007 files in earlier versions, don’t rely on your colleagues to have it installed.

If you’re connected to a SharePoint server, you can save portions of a worksheet or an entire worksheet to the server, and your users can view only or change values at your direction. Likewise, you can save a worksheet file so colleagues can be sure they’re updating the most recent version of the file.

Despite all that’s new, many things haven’t changed. Apart from expanding the size of the formula bar (it grows as your formula grows), there’s not much to help you write formulas. The ribbon bar contains icons that segregate formulas (date and time, financial, logical, etc.) but there’s no new help to explain the intricacies of some functions.

Even so, it’s likely that many of the features you’ve always wanted but never knew Excel had will finally surface, thanks to the new interface.

--Rick Scott

While Word 2007 is a pretty radical departure from earlier versions of Word, Outlook 2007 is more of an incremental step. My guess is that Outlook simply didn’t benefit from having its entire interface scrapped; instead, selected parts of the program were reworked with the new interface model. It’s consistent enough with the old version not to be a huge distraction, and the changes are mostly subtle and positive.

The main interface in Outlook 2007 is almost unchanged: unlike applications such as Word and Excel, the tear-off toolbars and menu bars of 2003 are still there. The new Office “ribbon” interface appears when you open or edit a message, but the toolbars remain in the program’s main view -- possibly because there’s never been the plethora of toolbar clutter in Outlook that there has been in other Office programs. Migrating mail files from older versions of Outlook (that is, if you’re not installing on top of an existing copy of Outlook) has also been made slightly easier. If you click on Data File Management | Data Files in the File menu and point to the PST file you want to use, it’s set as the default, and 2003-edition PST files can work as-is.

Aside from the ribbon, the most obvious new addition is the "To-Do Bar," a pane that usually appears on the right-hand side of the screen and which displays a condensed view of the current month’s appointments and outstanding tasks. I liked it and left it on, but reduced its size to make it a little less obtrusive; you can change which elements and how much of each are displayed. The To-Do Bar and the Mail pane on the left are both selectively collapsible: You can flatten them down to a stub and pop them out on demand. This leaves you that much more room to work without having to turn the panes completely on or off. Appointments e-mailed to others are sent as attachments in the broadly-supported open-standard iCalendar format; everything from Lotus Notes to Google Calendar uses it.

The rendering of folders with many mail items in them has been sped up enormously: If you open a folder with a few thousand messages in it, the rest of Outlook doesn’t lock up while it renders the list. (The same goes for any other view with a lot of objects, such as to-do lists). Speaking of speed, the other thing that’s been sped up dramatically is Outlook’s search function: It’s essentially been replaced by the Microsoft Desktop Search Engine. If said engine isn’t already installed you’ll need to add it manually, but once it’s ready, searches that used to take minutes now take only a fraction of a second.

Most of the major interface changes appear when you’re reading or editing a message directly (which is where you now see the ribbon interface). Subtle visual aids abound: Outlook does its best to detect if you’re reading a message that has quoted components, and uses subtle visual highlighting to distinguish each quoted section. It doesn’t work all the time -- it got a bit confused when I opened digest-formatted e-mail from a subscription list, for instance -- but even if it doesn’t work, it’s never terribly distracting, and you can always turn it off. (It’s in the Options menu, under Preferences | Email Options | "Shade message headers when reading email").

The old categorization system for Outlook items was text-only; now you can categorize items by color instead of just a name. If you already have a set of categories, they’re assigned colors, but the existing category names are preserved, and 2007 does its best to preserve backwards compatibility with 2003 categories whenever possible. You can also create custom search folders for items flagged with specific categories, so they don’t get buried under everything else. It’s not a revolutionary change, but a useful incremental one; there are times when I don’t want to have to tag something by a specific name but still want them grouped in some way.

Outlook 2007 uses the same junk e-mail filter system as 2003 -- in other words, it’s a fixed component that’s updated once a month by Microsoft, and it’s not trainable except in the sense that you can whitelist or blacklist senders and organizations. Microsoft pre-trains the filter on their end by analyzing a high volume of e-mail known to be spam, which (in their purview) is more efficient than forcing the user to reinvent the wheel and train for spam on his own. In my experience, it actually does a fairly good job of trapping spam and, as with 2003, you can automatically whitelist anyone you reply to.

One problem with Outlook 2007 is the way the "old" and "new" parts of the program seem to be at odds with each other, at least with respect to how program options are presented. For instance, Outlook 2003’s option to present e-mail as plain text used to be in the old Options menu under Mail Format. Now it’s in the "Trust Center," an options dialog with the new Office 2007 look-and-feel, in the "Email Security" section. I seriously doubt most people are going to look for such an option there. I don’t know if it would have been better to move all of Outlook’s options into the new Office 2007 option dialogs, but it would at least have been that much more consistent.

Also -- and this is a minor note, but one worth mentioning in my case -- Fixedsys and other non-TrueType / OpenType fonts can’t be used to display e-mail anymore. I’m fond of using the Fixedsys font for plain text email, but as it turns out there’s a TrueType replacement for it, which solved that problem.

I’m a longtime Outlook user, and because the changes to Outlook 2007 are more incremental than revolutionary, it wasn’t a huge shock to switch to it and continue my existing work. I doubt it’s a mandatory upgrade -- for instance, the new search engine can be used with Outlook 2003, although it won’t be integrated directly into it -- but it’s a useful one.

--Sergar Yegulalp

PowerPoint is all about conveying a message visually, so it’s no surprise that many of the graphic changes shared by Office applications are of particular interest to PowerPoint users.

For example, the new SmartArt feature helps you communicate by using dynamic graphics, from hierarchy diagrams to process charts. Best of all, you can turn a bullet list into a SmartArt illustration with just a couple of mouse clicks.

Previous versions of PowerPoint supported Master Slides, which are the equivalent to styles in Word -- change a property in the Master Slide and all dependent slides are changed. In PowerPoint 2007, Master Slides are vastly enriched. Now there’s a new hierarchy. The Master Slide consists of a variety of slide Master Layouts: a picture slide layout (for displaying an image), a chart slide layout (for charts and graphs), and more. You can add, remove, and position elements (such as text boxes) on each layout master, and as you’d expect, changes to the Master Slide ripple through all layouts. It’s a much easier approach to applying (and customizing) slide templates than in any previous version of PowerPoint.

Those changes, by the way, now include the ability to apply themes -- a collection of properties, from font and font size (one set for headings, one for the body of a slide) to background images and colors of graphic elements. When you add a slide, the theme is used in the thumbnail previews. Best of all, you can take a predefined theme and change it to suit your own taste (or create one from scratch), then save it and easily apply to it other slides or entire presentations from the Themes gallery.

Charts are no longer dependent on the adequate but aging Microsoft Graph applet included in previous versions -- you now have the power of Excel 2007 charting. In Office 2003, PowerPoint used MSGraph, a really crude charting tool. Now, when you tell PowerPoint you want to insert a chart, it opens Excel with a table filled in with dummy column headings, dummy row headings, and dummy data -- all giving you visual clues as to what you should fill in where.

You can control plenty of visual elements. Shapes can have shadows and flows, softer edges, and more polished 3D effects. You can add effects to the edge of photos (to give a photo a torn-edge look, for example) and control shadow effects (you can control transparency, level of blur, and color).

Changes In Real Time
Basic text handling is improved. At last you can have strikethrough and ALL CAPS font properties just as with Word, and kerning control has been added if you absolutely need precise text control. PowerPoint 2007 lets you select the which fill and outline colors you want for outline text without resorting to WordArt. Likewise, backgrounds are now easier to control thanks to an improved dialog box of options. From gradient fills to tiling, the options you need are here.

PowerPoint 2007 also benefits from suite-wide improvements such as real-time previews of changes (you can instantly see the effect of a font change or color scheme without having to apply a change and then "undo" it). Using the Animations tab you can apply slide transitions and preview them automatically, a great time saver, though the animation effects remain mostly unchanged from previous versions. On the other hand, table formatting is leaps and bounds ahead of previous versions, and combined with quick previews it’s easy to pick the look that’s just right for your presentation.

The zoom slider control has been moved to the bottom-right corner, along with icons to change the view (Normal, Slide Sorter, Slide Show Preview mode). That interface change is easy to adjust to; others will take a little more time. For example, the Insert Slide isn’t on the Insert tab but the Home tab -- that makes sense, since the idea is that you should be able to use the Home tab icons for the majority of your work, but users trained to use the Insert/Slide command from previous versions will need to adjust, as will having to use the Insert tab to work with headers, footers, clip art, and links.

Speaking of inserting slides -- if you are connected to a SharePoint server, you can share your slides with others using a Slide Library. It’s just as easy to incorporate a shared slide into your own presentation (you have the choice of using your own theme or the theme stored with the shared slide), and you can set SharePoint to notify you whenever you open your presentation and the shared slide you’re using has changed in any way.

A "selection and visibility" panel lets you focus on individual items on a slide; click an item to temporarily hide it while you work on other elements, then click it again to make it reappear. It's now easier to add action buttons (yp click to advance to the next slide, for example), add slide numbers, fill a graphic with an image, apply a gradient to a line (new in 2007), replace one shape with another, and in general handle a myriad of graphics chores.

Also new: the Compatibility checker, which notifies you of what features won’t be supported if you save the file in an earlier PowerPoint version (97 through 2003). The new Inspect Document tool removes properties you may not want your audience to have access to, such as author information, comments, revisions, watermarks, and hidden text.

The one feature omitted in 2007 is the content wizard; it allowed you to quickly create a presentation for a variety of situations, such as presenting bad news. It was a good guide for organizing your thoughts. It will be sorely missed.

--Rick Scott

In some ways, Access has always been the odd kid brother in the Office clique. It was a little more complicated than its competitors (sometimes unnecessarily so); and when programs like FileMaker (probably its single largest competitor) started making serious strides in terms of power and functionality, Access started to look like an also-ran. Access 2007 features the new ribbon interface and some tremendously useful new ways to manage the way data is entered and procured, but it’s still strongly oriented toward developers rather than end-users.

If you’re not converting an existing Access database, one of the best ways to get working with the program immediately is to use one of the included database templates (there’s a repository of templates available online from Microsoft as well ). One common complaint about earlier versions of Access was the lack of templates for common database applications, and that’s been at least partly addressed here. Among the templates available on the release of the product will be an asset-tracking list, a contacts database, a to-do list or a business account ledger, and they’re all malleable -- you can use them as-is or customize them completely. The breadth of available templates isn’t that great, but I’m hoping that’ll change after Access is formally released.

More Consistent Interface
Access 2007 uses the ribbon interface pretty consistently, as it does with Word and (to a lesser degree) Outlook. It’s a welcome change, since it removes that much more clutter from the interface and makes it easier to focus on the task at hand, whether it’s data entry or editing the underlying schema.

Also, much of the way data is entered and managed has been moved closer to the way another Office cousin -- Excel -- behaves: You can jump in and start throwing data at it in a fairly freeform fashion, and normalize it later. Columns can be added to a table on the fly, and columns that are built on a value list can have list values edited interactively without having to switch to the Design view. If you’re a stickler for having your data entered clean, though, you can always use Access’s more rigid data-entry models.

The types of data that Access can handle have also been broadened; a generic "attachment" field lets you drop in a document of any kind as a column value. I also liked the way reports and forms can now be edited with live feedback: Instead of designing an unpopulated form, you can do the design work on a page that’s populated with live data and see the results instantly. It’s also easier to create things like groupings and sortings in a report -- to that end, there’s a new drag-and-drop tool that actually resembles the group/sort controller for Outlook’s views.

There’s little question that one of Access’s best features is its connectivity to data in other Microsoft products. Excel tables, ODBC connectors, SQL Servers, and SharePoint Services sites can all be connected to and used as live data sources. One of Access 2007’s new functions in this regard is the native ability to connect to and export an Access database to a SQL Server database -- perfect if you’re trying to up-migrate an existing set of Access databases and don’t want to waste time figuring out how to import everything on the SQL Server side. Exporting to PDF or XPS is also possible, although as with Word, you have to download a plug-in for those formats; they’re not available with the product by default.

Data Harvesting
One of the single best new features is the ability to automatically collect data from third parties by creating an HTML e-mail message and sending it to a list of recipients -- either a list entered from Outlook or names from a database table. The returned e-mail needs to have its formatting preserved exactly, and the data harvesting only works properly with Outlook 2007, but the idea’s sound and makes for a great way to poll people for information without setting up a server of some kind. In some ways it’s a compensation for Access’s lack of other data-publishing and -harvesting functions outside of a SharePoint Server setup.

Access’s two big weaknesses are still prevalent. The first is the program’s general audience, which is more developers than end users -- although some of that has been abated with the new interface and the out-of-the-box templates.

The other big weakness is publishing Access data in anything other than a static file, which requires a lot of work. Apparently the only way to make data accessible interactively is through an Office SharePoint server, which is a fairly large investment of time and energy … and money. (By contrast, FileMaker Pro can also function as a mini-Web server and allow people to connect directly to the database, input and edit data, and view live reports.)

Still, for committed Access gurus, the changes are probably going to be welcome since they do make the program all the easier to work with, and that much more powerful as well.

--Sergar Yegulalp

The reviews of many of the other applications in Office 2007 devote considerable time to comparing the new version to the previous one. With OneNote there’s not much comparison. The new version is still a freeform note-taking and information organization program, but it has been so thoroughly reworked and extended that it might as well be brand new.

This second version of OneNote is expanded from a personal information manager to a lightweight collaboration tool, and it gains usefulness from new integration with Outlook, in particular. It takes better advantage of connectivity with a mobile client and support for synchronizing notebooks across multiple PCs. And . . . on and on and on. The list of new features is long, but the bottom line is that OneNote is a much more robust application than it was in its first version, released in 2003.

It is a challenge just to describe OneNote adequately, let alone accurately. It’s something like the blind men and the elephant:

  • If you’re an individual user, you might perceive OneNote as a tool for collecting, organizing, and communicating information. All kinds of information. You can type notes into it (or handwrite them, if you have a tablet PC). You can paste in text, or embed whole documents. You can likewise paste in images, send Web pages to OneNote, or capture all or any part of the screen. And where OneNote 2003 was a boutique note-taker with only one notebook allowed, OneNote 2007 is industrial strength -- it supports multiple notebooks, and allows you to share them across multiple computers on a network.

  • If you’re trying to manage multiple projects, you may find that OneNote is a great tool for letting you track tasks and dates and assignments. You can build to-do lists and then export events to your Outlook calendar. Send e-mails to team members from within OneNote. Sync status flags to Outlook. Use the OneNote Mobile application (if you’ve got a Windows Mobile smartphone or Pocket PC) to display your to-dos and collect notes to sync back to your PC.

  • If you’re working in a team, you might settle on OneNote as a collaboration tool that works both synchronously and asynchronously. Multiple users can share a notebook, and work in it simultaneously, with the results being saved and synced to all the copies. You can even do this in real time, in a conference room, for example, with multiple users editing a page to build notes and lists – and even use some new drawing tools. (OneNote has been significantly re-architected to support autosave and range locking within a file.) Disconnected users can edit pages, and their changes are automatically synced to other copies of the notebook when they reconnect to the network. The result, though I hate to use a buzzword, is very wiki-like. (It’s also for groups that trust each other -- OneNote is not like a wiki in its lack of editing and version controls.)

Multiple Ins, Multiple Outs
The common theme in these very different use models is a richness of functionality and file format that gives you plenty of headroom. In other words, you can use OneNote the way it works for you.

OneNote is a Swiss Army knife for clipping and snipping information. In addition to the usual typing or stylus input, you can cut-and-paste into OneNote: Unlike most applications, screenshots are a good way to get content into OneNote, because it uses OCR to extract searchable text from images. It also automatically includes the URL when you cut-and-paste from a Web site.

You can even print documents into OneNote: a "Send to OneNote 2007" function appears in the list of available printers. This may sound crazy, but it works great for things where the formatting is an essential part of the content’s meaning, like math equations and complex desktop publishing projects.

Working with OneNote notebooks is equally flexible. You can create shared notebooks -- either notebooks only you use that exist on more than one PC, or notebooks that several people use. OneNote manages communications among the copies to save and synchronize changes in the multiple copies.

Synchronization typically takes place across a network, but you can use the same notebook on two PCs that aren't connected. Create a notebook that is marked for shared use and offline use on a USB drive. Open it on multiple PCs. As long as you don’t close it, it stays in the program’s cache on each machine, and automatically syncs with the stored version when you reinsert the USB key in that PC.

OneNote offers amazing depth of functionality for personal and shared information management. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest problem. It has far too many functions and features to be called intuitive. You won't sit down in front of a PC running OneNote and do something useful with it immediately. It is one of those applications that take time to learn well, and reward that investment of time by allowing you to do new things in new ways.

A minor example: shortcut keys. OneNote allows you to assign shortcut key combinations to just about any function in the program. If you pay attention to what you're doing routinely in the program and assign those actions to shortcuts, you can increase your efficiency -- and the value of OneNote.

Unfortunately, while the value of OneNote may be clear, Microsoft's marketing goals for the product is not: It is included in only three of the seven versions of Office 2007 (Home & Student, Ultimate, and Enterprise). According to Microsoft's Web site, it will continue to be available as a stand-alone (and at $99 rather pricey) package.

--David DeJean

Microsoft Office Publisher is not a major application. It lives in the desktop publishing shadows of Quark Xpress, Adobe's PageMaker, and InDesign. It's not even one of the major applications bundled into Microsoft Office -- those would be Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

Publisher's second-class status is evident in the Office 2007 release: Word, Excel, and Powerpoint all share the new (if controversial) "ribbon" interface. Publisher doesn't. It still looks pretty much the same as it did its last time around in Office 2003. But that's OK because (a) those other applications are just getting some features that Publisher pioneered, and (b) when you look under the hood Publisher has gotten some improvements and upgrades, although there are a couple of things that are missing.

If the Office 2007 ribbon is enough to make you yearn for the return of Clippy, the Paper Clip Man, then you'll find the minimal interface changes in Publisher comforting. The most obvious difference is an intelligent reorganization of the Task Pane, helped by some of the work done on Galleries for Word and PowerPoint. It is now easier to select the basic features of your project -- whether it will be a one-sided flyer or a four-page newsletter, for example. The previous version of Publisher provided a range of project templates, color schemes, and font sets (in fact, the templates are only lightly updated), but the work done on user interface design has paid off by smoothing the process for setting and resetting all the variables as you start a project.

The Content Library is the clear winner for Best New Feature. It works as a publication-independent clipboard, allowing you to save bits and pieces of text and graphics and design and pull them into other publications rather than tediously opening and closing multiple publications to collect the piece parts you need.

The Content Library is an improvement that will be appreciated by design police everywhere, because it lets professional graphics people build their own libraries of useful objects, and it can be pre-loaded and handed to design amateurs to at least start them off with a toolkit of approved text and styles. A similar new feature, "Business Information," lets you enter basic contact information, a business slogan, and a logo, and applies this to the template files -- a minor but nonetheless welcome reduction in labor and the chance for error.

Not every feature is handled equally well. Publisher 2007 is smarter about printing multiple business cards on a sheet than the previous version, for example. But while you can create your own templates and add them to a "My Templates" folder that shows up when you open the program, it won't show up later when you want to change the template you've selected for a project. You have to go all the way back to Square One and create a new project to see your templates again.

Absent Friends
Publisher's second-class status left it at the back of the line for more than the ribbon UI. The new SmartArt and Chart engines are conspicuous in their absence. You can use these nifty new features by creating Word or Excel objects in a Publisher project, but they work so well in the major programs that their absence from the Publisher UI -- particularly SmartArt -- leaves a palpable hole in the program.

Publisher is not second-class in one sense -- it is included in the five high-end versions of Office (Small Business, Professional, Ultimate, and Professional Enterprise), and omitted from the three low-end packages (Basic, Home & Student, and Standard). Microsoft is clearly positioning the product as a business tool, not just a graphic-design application.

Some of the new features in this version are obviously intended to promote Publisher as a tool for e-mail and Web-based marketing. These include connections to Excel or Access for doing mail merge and e-mail merge, and Business Contact Manager (which comes as part of Outlook in the Small Business, Professional, and Ultimate packages) for tracking campaign results. Mostly these feel like they've been added to convince small businesses that Publisher is a serious business tool, a value-add to the hefty price of the Office Suite and not just a let's-make-a-birthday-card toss-in.

They do point up the idea that Publisher is capable of more than just printing flyers. The program does support HTML output with an ad hoc page depth, and you can do "catalog merging" to build publications from a database. But the idea that many businesses will use it to track the performance of online marketing campaigns seems problematical. There are specialized tools and Web-based services for managing e-mail campaigns and newsletters that are probably better suited to those tasks.

It is desktop graphic design for print that is still Publisher's strong suit, particularly now that Office provides a PDF output option. It falls behind the feature set of the major Office apps in this 2007 release, but it is still a capable self-contained DTP package for producing projects a small-to-medium business might distribute electronically, print in-house, or send to a printer.

--David DeJean

Office 2007 marks a major transition. Microsoft Office started out as a collection of individual desktop productivity applications: the first version of the Office suite in 1989 included a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation program -- and a "Pro" version added a database and a scheduler, according to Wikipedia link. But in recent years, the focus of "productivity computing" has shifted from individual productivity to group productivity, from unconnected computers to networks, and from stand-alone applications to client software that works with remote servers.

Microsoft Office has kept up with these trends. Office 2007 is described as a "system" rather than an old-fashioned "suite," and it's a system that's become a big tent. Under the Office tent are 15 desktop applications, and no fewer than 13 server applications and "related products and technologies." Microsoft's official list also includes two Web-based services, Office Live and Live Meeting, and an indeterminate number of "solutions." It's a total of 30 products if you ignore the "solutions" (which you should do, because, as usual, they are all about marketing programs rather than computer functionality.)

Interestingly, of the 15 desktop applications, more than a third -- Communicator, Groove, InfoPath, OneNote, Outlook, and SharePoint Designer -- can be described as client applications because they depend at least in part on server-based functionality.

That's a change.

Some of these, such as OneNote and Outlook, are covered elsewhere in this package. While these six clients have similarities, they are all different. Outlook, Office's e-mail and calendaring client extrordinaire, you've surely already met. OneNote and Groove are essentially serverless clients that use peer-to-peer technology -- OneNote in a simple way to share a data file, Groove in a far more complex way to share a managed workspace. InfoPath and SharePoint Designer are both primarily developer tools, rather than end-user applications, aimed at making it easier to develop applications for the SharePoint portal. Communicator is Microsoft's first try at "applicationizing" presence awareness and tying together its instant messaging with Active Directory.

Groove: A Server-Based Serverless App?
When Microsoft bought Groove in March, 2005, it wasn't clear whether the centerpiece of the deal was the Groove collaboration application or Groove founder Ray Ozzie himself. For a while it looked like it was the latter as Ozzie, the driving force behind Lotus Notes and much of current thinking on collaboration and presence awareness, rose quickly in Microsoft's hierarchy. But Office 2007 gives evidence that Groove and its collaboration technologies were a prize for Microsoft, too.

Groove filled a hole in a Microsoft product line-up. Groove provides an "occasionally connected" collaboration model and support for real-time communications and ad hoc creation of managed shared workspaces. There hasn't been much time since the acquisition to integrate Groove into the Microsoft code base. As a result Office Groove 2007 looks pretty much like Groove before the buy-out.

The changes have come under the hood, to make Groove a more manageable participant in the enterprise computing environment. Many of the changes support Office Groove Server 2007, a collection of functions that work to improve network performance by mitigating Groove's impact on network traffic, and interface points for management of Groove. Some of these tie Groove into the Active Directory structure for bulk provisioning of accounts, do usage reporting, enforce security and business rules, give Groove tools and templates access to data in other SharePoint applications, and reduce the impact of peer-to-peer file transfers to large numbers of users on the network optimization.

Fortunately, none of this changes the fundamental nature of Groove. It's still an extremely easy way for a group to work on a project asynchronously and securely across enterprise domains and firewalls. Its peer-to-peer architecture hasn't been changed, so an individual can still create a workspace and invite other participants to share files, make and propagate changes, monitor the presence of other team members in the workspace, and conduct threaded discussions in an offline/online use model.

It will be interesting to see where Microsoft takes Groove. Better integration with OneNote, for instance, should be a high priority, so that notebooks created with OneNote's easy data-collection tools can live in Groove workspaces. There is some integration of Groove's presence awareness with Communicator already, so that Groove users can use IM and voice services to communicate with others in their workspaces. Clearly the Groove acquisition has given Microsoft a boost in its efforts to create credible competition for IBM/Lotus's Domino/Notes/Sametime/Workplace combination.

Communicator: Are You There?
Microsoft introduced Communicator in 2005 as an integrated client for real-time communications through its Live Communications Server 2005. Office Communicator 2005 provides a user interface for instant messaging, SIP-based VoIP and video, PBX-integrated telephony and conference calling, and Web conferencing with Microsoft Office Live Meeting audio. It also functions as an alternative to Outlook to provide access to Exchange e-mail accounts.

Communicator is intended to give businesses an integrated, manageable client for the Live Communications Server. Much like IBM/Lotus's Sametime, Communicator uses server-based presence awareness information -- indicators that show who's online and how they're connected -- to enable secure IM and connect to public IM services and corporate telephony systems.

Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 won't be released with the rest of Office 2007, but is expected to ship in the second quarter of 2007.

InfoPath and SharePoint Designer: Easy AppDev for the Portal Age
The presence of InfoPath and SharePoint Designer on the list of Microsoft Office 2007 applications is perhaps more about marketing than about real benefit to most users of Microsoft Office. Both applications are development tools for creating or customizing applications to run on the SharePoint Server.

InfoPath gives businesses a forms creation and management application they can use to deliver browser-based forms that connect to back-end data collection systems, either through the SharePoint Server or, if they're not running SharePoint, a new Office Forms Server 2007.

InfoPath handles the UI part of the forms-design process and lets designers build forms that can be completed in a browser or in other Office applications. Other application-development tools let programmers create workflows that route these forms for approval or reporting. The most complex workflow applications can be created by developers using the new Workflow Foundation piece of .NET 3.0. For end users, SharePoint Designer supports workflow creation without writing code.

SharePoint Designer 2007 is half of what used to be Office FrontPage, the WYSIWYG Web page creator. With Office 2007, FrontPage vanishes, replaced by SharePoint and Expression Web. SharePoint Designer is geared toward application-development tasks that would formerly have built applications that called the FrontPage Server Extensions, now embedded in the SharePoint Server. Expression Web, not a part of Office 2007, is aimed a professional Web designers. It requires .NET 2.0.

Sorting the Pieces
Not all of these client applications are available in all the eight different versions of Microsoft Office 2007. But this isn't as much of a limitation as it might appear, because the client apps most widely run by end users are also the most widely available.

While the Groove client, for example, is included in only two Office versions (Office Enterprise and Office Ultimate), it's freely distributed as a trial version to PC users invited into Groove workspaces. OneNote is missing from four versions of Office, but available as a stand-alone application for $99. Outlook, perhaps the most widely used of the Office client applications, is inexplicably missing from four versions of Office -- perhaps because Microsoft judged that the free and ubiquitous Outlook Express bundled with Internet Explorer was good enough for those markets. InfoPath is included only in the three high-end packages (Office Professional Plus, Office Enterprise, and Office Ultimate), and SharePoint Designer doesn't show up on any list.

Not every Word or PowerPoint user has a clear and present need for SharePoint Designer, to be sure, but the very presence of clients and appdev tools like these say a good deal about the future of Microsoft Office -- and perhaps about the future of desktop computing.

--David DeJean

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