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. The interface 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. 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 OpenOffice.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 compatibility pack. With the pack—a 27.1MB download—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 over the new file formats.