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The Cutting Edge / Personal Technology | PC FOCUS

Coming Soon to an Office Near You: Microsoft's Upgrade

April 26, 1999|LAWARENCE J. MAGID

Microsoft Office has long been the dominant office productivity suite for both Windows and Macintosh. Indeed, many PCs today come with a version of Office; even people who buy their software are far more likely to choose Office than any other package such as Lotus SmartSuite or Corel's WordPerfect Office.

Depending on the version you buy, Microsoft Office comes with several applications, including Microsoft Word, the Excel spreadsheet, Outlook e-mail and personal information manager, Publisher desktop publishing, PowerPoint presentation software and the Access database program.

The last major upgrade to Office for Windows took place in 1997 (Office 98 for Macintosh was released last year), but starting in May, millions of workers in large companies and many people who buy new PCs will be getting their hands on a new version, dubbed Office 2000. Small businesses and personal users will be able to purchase the software starting in June. Prices will range from $209 to $799, depending on the version and whether you're upgrading or buying an office suite for the first time.

Office comes in several versions including with the Standard edition (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook), the Small Business edition (Word, Excel, Publisher, Outlook and some as yet unannounced small-business tools), and the Professional Edition (add Access and PowerPoint). What Microsoft calls "software enthusiasts" can purchase the Premium Edition that includes the FrontPage Web site creation tool and the new PhotoDraw graphics program.

System requirements for Office 2000 are a bit more stringent than for Office 97. Office 2000 takes up a minimum of 189 megabytes of hard disk space and requires at least a 75-megahertz Pentium processor with 32 or more megabytes of memory, but that's well within the specs of any PC purchased in the last couple of years.

Office 2000, in some ways, is the most dramatic revision that Microsoft has done. Yet, despite lots of new features and a strong integration into the Internet, upgrading from Office 97 is a relatively easy, albeit expensive, transition.

Before I go into the changes, let me give Microsoft credit for what it didn't change. When the company introduced Office 97, it changed the file format for Word and most other applications. With the new format, files were considerably larger, and special software was needed for Office 95 users to read Office 97 files.

With the exception of Access, the default file format for Office 2000 applications is the same as for Office 97. However, Microsoft also offers an additional optional file format, which gets to the heart of the changes in the new software.

Microsoft now gives users the option of saving files in HTML (hypertext markup language) format so they can be immediately used on the Internet or on a company's internal Intranet. There is nothing unusual about a word processor or other program being able to save as HTML, but with Office 2000 HTML can be used for routine work even if you don't intend to post the file to the Net.

An Office 2000 document saved as HTML has the same characteristics as one created as a regular Office file. Bold, underline, colors and all other attributes are preserved and even formulas in Excel remain active. When printed, the document looks the same as if you had created it as a regular document.

What this means is that companies, as an option, can standardize on HTML files so that any file created can be printed or viewed on an intranet or the Internet without having to make any changes. Another advantage to this file format is that anyone with a browser can now view Office files.

It is even possible to create an interactive Excel spreadsheet that can be posted to the Web and manipulated by a user. As a test, I created a simple spreadsheet in Excel, saved it as an HTML file, opened it in Word, enhanced it and saved it to my Web site. I could not only see the spreadsheet, but I also could manipulate the data from within the browser. People accessing the spreadsheet over the Internet cannot make any permanent changes, however.

In keeping with the Internet theme of Office 2000, Microsoft did a better job at integrating its Office applications with Microsoft Outlook, the communications and personal information management program that comes with Office.

From the file menu in Word, for example, you can select "send to" and Word will put an e-mail form at the top of the screen where you can enter the recipient's e-mail address directly or select it from your Outlook contact list. Click "send a copy" and a copy of the document (as a message or as an attached file) is placed in your Outlook Outbox to be sent the next time you sign on to the Internet. You could do this with Office 97, but the process was slower and more cumbersome.

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