Office 2007 Will Rock Corporations Worlds

Review: eWEEK Labs' tests show that the new suite is one of the biggest innovations from Microsoft in years, but prepare for some end-user aftershocks

Office 2007 is one of the most ambitious and innovative releases to come from Microsoft in years, introducing big changes and improvements to a productivity suite that is a mainstay in corporate environments.

Released to manufacturing on Nov. 6, Office 2007 will be available through volume licensing to enterprise customers at the end of November and should hit store shelves early next year.

eWeek Labs has been testing the beta and pre-RTM versions of Office 2007 for some time now, and we believe that the new productivity suite is a compelling upgrade for corporations using earlier versions.

The new interface makes it easier for users to find the commands theyre looking for. It includes a ribbon, comprising a combination of tool bars that changes depending on the task a user is working on, and the Office Button, which replaces the old File menu.

Other tools fill some gaps and pump up Office graphics. The Document Inspector tool, for example, allows users to check their documents and strip them of metadata and revisions before sending the documents on, and a plug-in finally brings PDF capabilities to Office. Meanwhile, Smart Art allows users to create charts that visually pop, particularly in PowerPoint and Excel.

There is suitewide focus on collaboration in Office 2007—especially, of course, in Outlook, Groove and OneNote (see story, Page 47). From these applications, users can share information and documents with greater ease than ever before.

For all the advances Microsoft has made with Office, however, the company still has a tough sell ahead of it. Office 2007s toughest competition will be the previous versions of the suite running—usually quite well—at corporations.

In addition, low-cost and free Office alternatives are maturing and becoming more viable. In fact, eWeek Labs recommends that users who do not require the bells and whistles offered in Office 2007—and who are looking mainly to edit and view simple documents—check out options such as Open-Office.orgs namesake suite and ThinkFrees ThinkFree Online. Both suites run on several operating systems (which Office 2007 doesnt) and are free (which Office 2007 most certainly isnt).

And its not just the price of the suite itself that makes Office 2007 expensive: IT managers looking to deploy the new suite will also need to consider the costs of the training and deployment issues that are bound to arise with such a significantly changed product.

Indeed, while all the new features and functionality will likely improve productivity in the long run, in the short term, IT managers should expect user confusion and frustration.

For example, although we eventually found the interface ribbon to be intuitive and grew comfortable working with it, we did get frustrated trying to locate common tasks when we first began working in Office 2007. Enterprises will need to factor in training time—and likely an initial productivity hit—as users become accustomed to the new user interface.

The UI isnt the only big change in Office 2007. The suite also introduces a new default XML-based file format called Open XML for Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Rather than the .doc, .ppt and .xls extensions of previous Office versions, users will see .docx, .pptx and .xlsx, respectively, in Office 2007. To alleviate confusion over the new file formats, IT managers can initially change the default settings so that files continue to be saved in the Office 97/2003 binary file formats.

To its credit, Microsoft has released a compatibility pack to solve potential file-format compatibility issues. If a user of Office 2003 receives a file created in the new file formats, he or she will be asked via a pop-up to download and install the free, 27.1MB compatibility pack. With the pack, users of Microsoft Office 2000, Office XP or Office 2003 will be able to open and edit files in the new Office XML file formats.

We installed the compatibility pack on a computer running Office 2003 and found that everything worked when we tried to open and edit a .docx file. However, IT managers should still expect some user confusion.

Several versions of Office 2007 will be available, including Office 2007 Enterprise and Office 2007 Professional Plus, both of which will be available through volume licensing only. Available through retail outlets are Office Ultimate 2007 ($679, or $539 for an upgrade), Office Professional 2007 (which costs $499, or $329 for an upgrade), Office Small Business Edition ($449, or $279 to upgrade), Office Standard ($399, or $239 to upgrade), and Office Home and Student ($149, with no upgrade option).

During tests, we installed Office 2007 Enterprise (comprising Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Access, Groove, Communicator, OneNote, InfoPath and Publisher) on a Toshiba Tecra A8. We also installed the suite on a Micron desktop with Pentium 4 processors and an Nvidia GeForce FX5920 Ultra video card running the RTM (release to manufacturing) code of Windows Vista.

Office 2007 requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Windows Server 2003 with SP1. The suite also can be installed on systems running Windows Vista Beta 2 or later, but not on earlier prerelease versions of Vista.

Users visual experiences with Office 2007 will depend on the operating system they are running. Office 2007 running on Windows XP SP2 will have a default blue theme, while the productivity suite running on Vista will automatically default to Vistas black, or Obsidian, theme. A silver theme is also available with Office 2007.

With the proximity of the Office 2007 and Vista operating system releases, it comes as no surprise that Office 2007 takes advantage of Vistas Aero Glass capabilities. Users will see a remarkable difference, particularly in the ribbon, when running Office on Vista. Whether the glass is a distraction that hampers productivity, though, will depend on individual users.

Word 2007

With Word 2007, users will find increased control over their data, whether theyre trying to encrypt documents or checking a document to ensure that revisions and comments are inaccessible before sending it to someone.

Word 2007s Document Inspector allows users to inspect a document for comments, revisions and versions; document properties and personal information, such as hidden metadata; hidden text; and headers, footers and watermarks.

Under the Office Button, the handy Prepare menu allowed us to get documents ready for distribution by restricting who could and could not edit, copy and print the documents. We also were able to add a digital signature, view and edit the document properties, and make the document read-only. To securely redact information, however, we had to turn to Adobe Systems Acrobat 8 to make sure we could black out sentences in our document and ensure the text underneath could not be seen.

While the first thing users will notice in Word 2007 is the new UI, they will also notice the introduction of a new default font called Calibri, which replaces Times New Roman. Users also will notice the handy word counter at the bottom of the screen, and bloggers will likely appreciate a tool that allows them to compose a blog post in Word and then post directly from Word to a blog. Word 2007 supports direct posting for multiple blog providers, including Windows Live Spaces, Blogger, TypePad and WordPress.

When opening a .doc file created in Word 2003 or earlier without converting it to a .docx file, Word 2007 operates in Compatibility Mode, which makes it impossible to use features that are not found in earlier versions of Word to ensure compatibility between the versions.

To gain more work space for our Word documents, we were able to minimize the ribbon whenever we didnt need it. We could quickly restore the ribbon by clicking on a tab related to what we wanted to do.

While we eventually became accustomed to the new ribbon interface, some parts of Word still puzzled us. For example, the longer our documents, the worse the disappearing text problem. Whenever Word did an automatic justification, the text display wasnt in sync with where the characters actually were in the file. As a result, if we were to go back to insert a word in a sentence, that word might wind up in the middle of another word. Weve had this experience with Word 2003 as well, but the issue seems to be a bigger problem in Word 2007.

Another thing we hoped to see in Word, and in Excel, was some sort of online component that would allow us to access our documents without having to e-mail them to ourselves or deploy SharePoint Server. Unfortunately, such a capability still does not exist.

PowerPoint 2007

Powerpoint 2007s Smart Art Graphics feature (also available in Excel and Word) allows users to add slick charts and graphics to presentations.

PowerPoint 2007 also introduces themes, which are templates that contain design information. Users can create their own themes and reuse them, or they can choose from a set of themes already available in PowerPoint and on Microsoft Office Online (office.microsoft.com).

Along with themes, PowerPoint 2007 adds the ability to design and save custom slide layouts. Users can reuse these layouts, avoiding the need to cut and paste layouts onto new slides. We found that the custom slide feature really made a difference when it came to creating presentations quickly.

When PowerPoint is used in combination with Office SharePoint Server 2007, users gain collaboration capabilities, including the ability to share and reuse slide content that is stored on a centrally located Slide Library in SharePoint Server. This also allows users to repurpose existing content or to easily add slides that are required in every presentation by their company.

With SharePoint Server, users can also manage, initiate, and track review and approval processes within PowerPoint 2007.

While the first betas of Office 2007 included support for PDF, a squabble between Adobe Systems and Microsoft caused support to be pulled from the shipping version of the suite. However, that feature can be added to Office 2007 in the form of a downloadable add-in called Microsoft Save as PDF. Microsoft is also making an add-in for XPS (XML Paper Specification) available for download. (Both downloads are available at office.microsoft.com.)

In tests, it was quick and easy to download and install the two add-ins, both of which are smaller than 1MB. We created PowerPoint presentations and saved them in a variety of file formats, including PDF and XPS. We were able to do the same with Word and Excel documents as well. While office suites such as OpenOffice.org and Corels WordPerfect have allowed users to save files as PDFs for years now, this is the first time this capability has been found in Office. In future versions of Office, we hope to see PowerPoint support Adobe Flash, a feature available in Sun Microsystems StarOffice productivity suite.

Excel 2007

The benefits of the ribbon interface are most obvious in Excel 2007, making it much easier for users to fully leverage the advanced features of the spreadsheet program.

Excel 2007 also introduces vastly improved graphics capabilities, including fancy three-dimensional charts and graphs that are now easier to create.

Using the new charting engine, we easily built everything from a pie chart to a scatter chart. Other chart options include stock, doughnut and bubble charts. All the charts we built using Excel 2007 were visibly more impressive than ones weve made in the past with Excel 2000 and 2003.

We also appreciated that Microsoft has made it easier to use more advanced features. With PivotTables, for example, users can now drag fields to wherever they want them to be displayed. Best of all, Excel now supports even larger data sets, with spreadsheets of up to 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns.

Outlook 2007

For Microsofts Outlook users, Outlook 2007 makes some considerable changes even beyond the new ribbon interface. As was the case with Outlook 2003, some of Outlook 2007s more significant improvements tie in to Exchange Server (Exchange Server 2007, to be exact). Despite that connection, Outlook includes a number of new capabilities that will allow users connected to previous versions of Exchange or other e-mail servers to operate more efficiently.

Outlook 2007 has two major UI changes: the addition of the ribbon interface on Outlook form components, such as New Message and New Calendar, as well as the new To-Do bar in the main Outlook interface. Outlook 2007 also has a number of smaller, more refined improvements that make it easier to view and organize information.

We found that the ribbon element in Outlook 2007 delivers the same kind of easy, contextual access to features that it does with other Office applications.

The To-Do bar is an optional interface element that gives users a quick view of the calendar, tasks and flagged messages along the right edge of the main interface. The bar includes the month calendar view from the left navigation element in Outlook 2007.

We liked that the To-Do bar imports tasks from other Office 2007 applications, including Project 2007, OneNote 2007 and Windows SharePoint Services. As a substitute for the Mailbox view in previous versions of Outlook, it does a good job of keeping users in tune to outstanding work and can be an ever-present reminder system. The feature will likely appeal most to users with widescreen displays because its presence consumes a good deal of screen real estate.

Microsoft has made a number of improvements to meeting management, particularly when it comes to scheduling meetings. The biggest improvement, the Scheduling Assistant, requires running Exchange Server 2007 on the back end. The Scheduling Assistant makes it easier for meeting organizers to schedule meetings by identifying the best available times on participants calendars.

One of the nicer calendar features of this release—the ability to share a calendar availability view—doesnt require Exchange Server 2007. With this feature, Outlook 2007 users can e-mail a message that shows availability for a period of time directly in the e-mail message. The message also includes an iCal attachment with the same information. When testing this feature, we could limit the amount of information shared in the message to just free and busy data.

Also boosting general meeting management capabilities in this release of Outlook is integration with OneNote 2007. Users who rely on OneNote to organize meeting agendas and minutes will be pleased to find that the OneNote integration passes Outlook 2007 meeting information to a OneNote Note.

On the e-mail management side, Outlook 2007 has a couple of features that tie in directly with Exchange Server 2007, including the ability to schedule and manage out-of-office messages and tie in Exchange Server 2007s managed folder capability. Managed folders give companies a way to organize e-mail messages based on compliance requirements.

Outlook 2007 also has a few additions that will make it easier to manage information. We liked the new message flagging and categorization methodology, which allowed us to categorize messages by color.

Overall, we found Outlook 2007s performance a little slower than Office 2003s when performing routine tasks, such as sorting messages or opening the calendar. Search is faster, however, albeit not blindingly so.

Access 2007

With the 2007 suite, Microsoft has substantially improved the Access database user experience. A suite of prebuilt tracking applications serve as templates, making it considerably easier for users who have little to no previous database experience to track information and create reports.

We liked the new automatic table creation feature, which did a good job of correctly identifying data types. We did manage to trip it up, however, with unexpected data when importing from Excel.

Access 2007 now has InfoPath forms integration, which pretty much only allows users to reuse a form someone else has written. That might be the point, but we had a hard time envisioning a case where it would make sense for a corporation to rely on InfoPath as a front end.

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be contacted at anne_chen@ziffdavis.com. Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be contacted at michael_caton@ziffdavis.com.

Evaluation Shortlist

Corels WordPerfect Office X3

The main advantage to this suite is that it offers many features found in Office 2007 but is fronted by a familiar, Office 2003-like interface www.corel.com

OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice.org 2.0

This free office suite supports seven different platforms (www.openoffice.org)

Suns StarOffice 8

A full-featured office productivity suite that supports multiple platforms and costs significantly less than Microsofts Office (www.sun.com/software/star/staroffice)

ThinkFrees ThinkFree Online

ThinkFrees office suite—including a free online version called ThinkFree Online and a server-based edition called ThinkFree Server—provides Office alternatives (www.thinkfree.com)