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Office Revolution

If there is a software package that really has something for everyone it must be Microsoft Office – whether it is producing documents in Word, creating presentations with PowerPoint, carrying out numerical analysis with Excel or using Access to organise all sorts of data. And don&#39t forget Outlook which can run not only all your email but also task reminders and appointments.

Around every 18 months, Microsoft comes up with a new version of the product. For a long time it has not been a matter of adding new features to the product but making it easier to use – the majority of Office users use less than 10 per cent of what the respective applications can do.

Personally, although I have been using many of the above on a daily basis for several years, I always seem to be finding more ways to work faster and smarter using the various applications.

Apparently, the next release is to be the last version of Office as we know it – a desktop application – before the introduction of Office.net. Net moves all Microsoft&#39s core products to true web-based applications operating on an application server basis.

But that is for the future. From May 31 – the latest product is Office XP (XP stands for Experience). This will be followed later in the year by Windows XP, the one-size-fits-all operating system that the company say will replace both Windows ME and Windows 2000.

Probably the most high-profile addition to Office XP is voice recognition. If it works it has the potential to be wonderful but in my experience using one is a great way to encourage yourself to improve on your typing speed. On the other hand, I know some IFAs who swear by it.

A new facility called Smart Tags will keep all the commands you really need to work on a document close at hand. These will work in similar ways to the right-mouse menu but give a wider and more specific range of options for any task.

The Task Pane will keep a range of key commands concerning a document, such as changing a design or template close at hand. This will also hold a clipboard with up to 24 items in it – very useful when moving a large amount of data between documents.

The new version of Outlook promises to show you all your overdue reminders in a single pane rather than cluttering up your PC desktop with multiple reminders. It also promises to let you continue working when large documents are being downloaded rather than freezing the application.

Many organisations use Excel to publish key information to their intranets or extranets, so the auto-republish feature that has been added will be particularly useful.

SharePoint will significantly enhance the ability to collaborate over documents. It allows you to send a document for review to members of a team but keep complete control over which comments or revisions to accept or reject. This will be a really great tool provided everybody you are working with has the latest version. But with some companies still using Office 95, I fear that it might lose a little value when trying to share documents across multiple organisations.

PowerPoint will allow presenters to see notes during a presentation that an audience will not be able to see.

It can be really frustrating to lose a document if an application crashes. The obvious way to fix this might be for Microsoft to stop Windows crashing but it has not done this yet although, to be fair, Windows 2000 is a whole lot better than any earlier version I have used.

Office XP versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access allow you to save your work at the time an error occurs to reduce the need to reconstruct documents. In the current version of Office, there are some recovery features but these usually omit to recover the most recent changes.

Office is always such a difficult product to judge. Some of the things in this new release make me inclined to say “not before time”. A good example of this is that it will at long last be possible to easily undo some of the auto-correct features. There can be few more frustrating experiences than knowing Word is going to change some words incorrectly because it thinks it should and each time you correct the change, the software changes it back.

Equally, the ability to integrate Hotmail into Outlook really should have arrived a long time ago. The same can be said for the fact that this version will deliver a print preview facility into PowerPoint.

However, some of the new features really do seem great ideas. If you can work with it, voice recognition has the capacity to revolutionise the way many people who are not good typists work. Smart Tags and Smart Panes should enable those who are adept Office users to work even faster.

With Office XP, Microsoft has yet again changed the product mix – although I am pleased to say that at long last PowerPoint has made its way back into the standard product, which will also include Word, Excel and Outlook for £429 (existing user upgrade £199). If you want to add the Access database product you need XP Professional at £519 (upgrade £269) A developer version, including Microsoft Publisher and Front Page is on offer at £749 (upgrade).

Over the coming months,I will be looking at the individual elements of Office XP to give a view on if it is worth investing in the new product.

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