First Look: Microsoft Office 12 Beta 1

Microsoft's radical redesign of its applications suite has some neat features, but could also have users up in arms.
Still A Beta
Some features that Microsoft showed me in a demonstration weren't working in the beta I tested. Live Preview, for example, lets you inspect what your choices will look like without actually making them. For example, you can select a section of a Word document and, as you hover over a font name in a pull-down list (from the Fonts section of the tab corresponding to Word's Write tab), the font is temporarily “applied” to the selected text in your document. It's a slick "previewing" feature, and in the case of formatting, at least, something that Corel's WordPerfect has had for several years. Live Preview also lets you inspect changes such as table AutoFormatting or diagram styles; in PowerPoint it's useful in previewing animation effects on the current slide.

I'm not sure how some features will eventually work because of some inconsistent behavior I'll attribute to the beta-ness of the code. For example, a new transparent pop-up toolbar (which Microsoft calls a "floaty" internally) is triggered automatically whenever you select a block of text with the mouse. It lets you quickly change font and alignment properties; it conveniently disappears when you move the mouse away. Unfortunately, this new mini-toolbar doesn't pop up when you select the same text using keyboard shortcuts (such as Shift + an arrow key).

IBeginning users may be pleased; power users will probably be peeved.

It's too soon to say how the new XML file format (XML structured data files compressed within a ZIP-compatible archive) will affect users. Instead of a single file, Office files now consist of several elements For example, a Word document is now really a collection of the core text file (in XML format), plus an XML file containing styles information, another XML file for comments, and so on. My test documents using the new format were about 55 percent smaller, on average. Your space savings will depend on the document contents, how graphic-rich they are, and other factors. I had no trouble opening Office 2003 documents and saving them in their original format, but I could just as easily convert them to Office 12 formats. Only Access 2003 files failed to work properly, but this is beta code, after all.

The use of a collection of XML files may have one or two advantages. You can, for example, rename a Word 12 document (which now carries the .DOCX file extension) as a ZIP file, peek into it with a ZIP utility, and replace the document's styles XML file with a different file to change the document's look to match a corporate standard (remembering to change the file extension back from ZIP to DOCX, of course). That's a boon if you're developing a document for a client and want to easily apply their design to your own document.

Since we're on the subject of styles, creating and/or modifying a style in Word isn't changed from earlier versions. In fact, throughout the suite, most of the core functionality, and all the dialog boxes we examined, are essentially the same as they were in Office 2003 (and, in many cases, earlier versions).

Finally, I tested a limited number of add-ins and found no problems in my small sample. One favorite set of shortcut icons, WordToys worked fine, as did a document automation tool called DataPrompter. Both were added to the "Add-Ins" tab of Word, and the ribbon section included a menu command for DataPrompter and set of icons for WordToys. I had to move the WordToys icons from Add-Ins to the Quick Access Toolbar is order to have them handy at all times. You may run into similar hiccups with your third-party tools.

Reserving Judgment
Microsoft has focused Office 12 on productivity issues, but it has left unfixed a number of deficiencies or inefficiencies. You still can't have left, center, and right-justified text on the same line without using a table. Live Preview first appeared in WordPerfect, but Microsoft didn't mimic that product's most useful feature, Reveal Codes.

I'm reserving final judgment. This is, after all, just the first beta, and it isn't feature complete. Some aspects, like the ribbons, seem very far along. But many other new functionalities and features are clearly unfinished. Much can (and hopefully will) change before the product ships, the target for which is currently the end of 2006.

It's clear that one of Microsoft's primary design goals for Office 12 is to make the most common tasks easier to use, make existing features more prominent, and help users share work or information (such as Outlook calendars) more seamlessly. Beginning users may be pleased; power users will probably be peeved. It's not exactly Office dumbed down, because the power is still there, but the lack of significant new features (so far) could be a disappointment for experienced users.

Beta 1 included only client-side code, so none of the promised features that make the applications work with servers (such as sharing data with a SharePoint server) can be evaluated; that will come in Beta 2. The company is promising features such as the ability to fill out an InfoPath form using a browser, integrate an InfoPath form with Access, and allow Access databases to be used with SharePoint Services to audit revision history, set data access permissions, and performs regular backups. Stay tuned.

Editor's Choice
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing