In the good old days, when Apple was selling every Mac it could make and developers were tripping over each other to introduce the latest niche software, the market was plagued by the over zealous marketing of what eventually became known as ‘vaporware.’ Despite full-page ads in the computer press announcing the imminent release of the latest and greatest software, vaporware lingered in limbo, sometimes never to appear and other times with an enormous delay. The classic example was Ann Arbor Softwork’s FullWrite Professional. Though FullWrite evolved into a dynamite word processor, the company never recovered from the initial delays and the resulting bad publicity.
One of the reasons for the delay in the shipping dates of vaporware was that software developers had to ensure their software worked according to specification. When FullWrite was announced, there were several word processing programs on the market including Word Perfect, Word Handler, WriteNow, MacWrite, and others. If Ann Arbor Softworks had released an error prone competitor, it would have faced immediate ruin.
Today, the competitive situation has changed dramatically. Microsoft dominates both the word processing and office suite market. Microsoft can afford to announce exciting new innovations, release the software in a kind of advanced ‘alpha’ form, and then fix problems with free maintenance upgrades. Though this strategy can be very frustrating to users, it’s lucrative for Microsoft, and for all intents and purposes, it’s perceived by many as the only game in town. It’s a bit ironic that Word 98, Microsoft’s dominant, industry leading word processor, should finally incorporate some of the features of FullWrite, while at the same time including flaws that might have precluded its release in a more competitive market.
Mr. Gates informed a congressional committee that Microsoft was about innovation, and after working with Office 98 for a number of months, I have to concur. Office 98 offers users a more Mac-like interface, a series of major advances in accessible power in all of its modules, and a suite that works together like never before. And who knows, within a few years, Office 2000 might be released with all the bugs finally ironed out.
This month, I’ll give you my first impressions of Office 98 and later include in-depth reviews of each component, beginning with Word in the August My Mac Reviews section.
Microsoft Office 98
Microsoft is the most successful software developer in the history of computing. This success isn’t solely dependent on predatory business practices or monopolistic maneuvering, but rather on the company’s long history of releasing quality software. Office 98 for the Macintosh purportedly continues with that tradition and offers the Macintosh user unprecedented power to retrieve, process, and publish information in a real Macintosh environment. Office 98 itself consists of Word 98, Excel 98, PowerPoint 98, and Outlook Express, while the Gold Edition bundles Microsoft FrontPage, Encarta 98, and Bookshelf—for what appears as a fraction of their cost.
For the first time that I’m aware of, Microsoft made an effort to assess the needs of the Macintosh community prior to the design of an Office Macintosh Edition. The ‘key findings’ the company drew from customer feedback were: (1) Mac users want software that works consistently with the Mac user interface; (2) Mac users want software that is easier and more intuitive to use (than say, Office 4.2); (3) Mac users require tools to work seamlessly in cross platform environments; and (4) Most users are not familiar with much of the functionality available in Office 4.2. Though these findings might seem like “no-brainers” to the rest of us, the company gets full points for recognizing them and using them as a basis for improvements in Office 98.
Consistent Mac Interface
One of the major factors that distinguishes the Mac interface from the Windows kludge is program adherence to what Apple once called the Human Design Interface (HDI). That is, the company set up a series of guidelines so that interface features like dialogue boxes and controls looked and behaved similarly across all applications. Microsoft appears to have made a real effort to support this consistency in Office 98. There are no obvious interface quirks copied directly from the Windows environment.
DRAG AND DROP
Office 98 supports Apple specific technologies like Drag and Drop across applications and extends the concept to include ‘Drag and Drop’ installation. The Office drawing tools support QuickTime and QuickTime VR allowing users to insert QuickTime movies and VR panoramas in Office applications.
The Office Thesaurus is now available via contextual menus. That is, if you highlight a word in any application and press CONTROL/Mouse Click, a dialogue box pops up that allows access to a list of synonyms. This is obviously faster than accessing the thesaurus via the standard pull down menu, but I noted some inconsistencies in the context implementation. For example, if you highlight a word in a heading and try CONTROL/Clicking, no thesaurus menu appears. I suppose there might be an option somewhere in Office’s labyrinth command structure that might provide control over this feature, but who has the time to look for it?
BELIEVE IT OR NOT
Microsoft claims that Office 98 applications are ‘self-maintaining.’ That is, if users accidentally trash shared libraries or other necessary files, the applications will replace these files automatically and boot properly with no user intervention. I tested this innovative feature by randomly selecting and renaming the 17K Microsoft Excel Object Library ‘Excel 409 Lexicon,’ moving it to a temporary folder, and then rebooting Excel. In response, I received an error message and Excel simply wouldn’t boot. I then returned the file to the Office Folder still bearing the new name and received yet another error message—this time suggesting that I turn Virtual Memory on or return Excel to the Office Folder. Finally, I restored the original name and Excel behaved normally. Apparently, the self-repair process only works with certain damaged files.
The WIMPS interface was the first step in making office type features more accessible to the user. With Office 98, Microsoft has taken the next logical step by adding intelligence to several office functions.
MAX THE BOX AND POWERPUP
An animated office assistant of your choice is now available from the Help Menu. This animated character provides a single way to access help in any Office application. The purpose of this semi-intelligent agent is to help users discover the full functionality of Office 98. The Office Assistant is supposed to track your recent actions and offer suggestions on how to complete tasks more easily and efficiently. The natural language technology built into Office 98 allows users to ask the Office Assistant questions in their own words.
My experience with the Office Assistant was generally positive. Though, I found it intrusive and at times an irritating distraction, I can appreciate its value to beginners who can ask it natural language questions free of computer jargon. Unfortunately, the assistant usually guides you to the correct place in the standard Help File where jargon still reigns supreme.
According to Microsoft, the Office Assistant also tracks your recent actions and tries to anticipate your needs. In using the Assistant over a couple of weeks, I saw no evidence of this, though I did note that if you start a letter with ‘Dear Anyone,’ the Assistant asks if you would like help to write a letter. I fear that for the experienced user, the Office Assistant is a prototypical intelligent agent that appears at times to be learning disadvantaged.
GRAMMAR AND SPELLING AS YOU WRITE
Microsoft appears to use the term ‘IntelliSense’ to refer to a range of features that are both context and content sensitive. For example, Office 98 can check your spelling and grammar on the fly as you type your document. The program displays a wavy underline to indicate a possible error and control clicking the referenced mistake generates a list of options. Other IntelliSense features include a vastly expanded AutoCorrect function and AutoText which simplifies the entry of frequently used salutations, references, attention lines, and the like.
Both the Spelling Checker and the Grammar Checker have been overhauled to make them more responsive to user needs. The Spelling dictionary has been significantly expanded to include modern expressions and technical jargon, while the Grammar Checker appears much more accurate.
Office 98 shares some 50% of its code among the applications thereby providing a much more consistent look and feel than previous incarnations of Office.
Command Bars in each program combine functions of toolbars and menus. Tear-off menus make it easier to access frequently used tools and contextual menus on Command Bars allow you to quickly access features while minimizing the amount of space the Command Bar uses.
Perhaps the biggest single change across the whole of Microsoft Office is the availability of the Drawing Toolbar and the expanded graphics capabilities that it provides. Adjustable AutoShapes provides over 100 vector mapped graphics; Fill effects provide multi-colored gradient, texture, transparent, and picture fills, and users can add 3-D effects. In addition, the user can create geometric shapes with Bezier curves, add shadow effects, connect shapes with straight, angled, or curved connectors; modify Arrowhead styles, align objects, use a nudge objects toolbar to precisely position graphics, and can insert bitmaps and background colors into transparent document backgrounds.
The additional graphics capabilities are long overdue in Office, but still fall short of a full-featured graphics component. Programs like Aldus SuperPaint or Deneba’s Canvas could work well as a 4th Office module and provide tools needed to edit both bitmaps and draw objects. Extending the features of the Draw Toolbar to incorporate all the required tools would add enormous complexity to an already crowded interface.
As I create a document, I usually save it several times and append the title with a number to indicate its position in the editing sequence. Sometimes, I will save a later edit while intending to also use an earlier version for something else. After a while, the hard disk gets crowded with files like WhyFiles3.4, MacFactor99, WhyFiles2.5, and so on. After a few weeks, it’s almost impossible to figure out what each version is about unless I open them and examine the contents. Office 98 resolves this organizational problem by giving you the option to keep all versions under a single file. You can also include comments about each version as you save them, so that it’s relatively easy to go back and delete the extraneous copies.
Outlook Express is Microsoft’s email software and comes packaged with Office 98 along with Internet Explorer. Express worked fine and is about equivalent to Navigator’s built-in mail program.
Hyperlinks let you immediately jump to a web address or another office document. Thus it’s possible, for example, to create a PowerPoint presentation with jumps to supporting documents or a Word Table of Contents that lets you instantly leap to a particular chapter. A Web Toolbar lets you stay in Office and still maneuver around hyperlinks and the web.
Office now allows you to save documents in HyperText Markup Language (HTML) format. Though HTML includes only a subset of Office’s many styles; the program does a pretty good job of translating documents into Web-ready format. There’s also a web wizard in Word that helps you create pages with some finesse.
The Machiavellian Mist
Microsoft Office is not vaporware, though it might have earned this classification if the company had waited to streamline the code, clarify the design, and error trap all of the bugs. I never review software without trying to use it in some functional way over at least a three or four-week period. That way, I get more than a cursory feel for the program. Though Office 98 offers a significant boost in accessible power over earlier versions of the software, there are some problems.
One of my projects using Word 98 was to print a series of diplomas for a graduating class. Word seemed the perfect choice, as the Mail Merge functions are generally easy to use. Thus, I measured the diploma size, set up a custom sized page, created the Master document, and finally imported the seniors’ names into a simple data file. While performing a few sample runs, I experimented with different fonts, font sizes, and styles until I got exactly what I wanted. At one point, I tried the ‘emboss’ font style from the Font dialogue box, did a sample merge, and decided it didn’t meet my needs. That’s when Word sent me on a one hour ‘bird walk.’
No matter what I did, the merged document always included the ‘Emboss’ style. I examined each paragraph in the master document and each field in the data document and there was no trace of the ‘Emboss’ style. I deleted the field and reinserted it. I deleted much of the text and retyped it. I changed the fonts to another style. I even redid ‘Emboss’ and then removed it again. No matter what I tried, the style continued to pop up in my merged document.
My deadline for producing these things was quickly approaching and I got more and more frustrated. Finally, I created a brand new master document and did another merge and it was fine.
One of the diplomas had smudged ink from the heat of the laser and so when I went back to print this single page, I discovered that the ‘merge to document’ option had created one page with over 40 sections. That is, though each section printed normally on its own page, I couldn’t selectively print page 27, as Word wanted to print them all.
THE REDMOND BLACK HOLE
Then, there’s the vanishing Word problem. Occasionally, Word would simply disappear on me with nary a trace of a document to recover. That is, I would sit happily using some of the new features and the screen would refresh and suddenly, Word was closed. I received no error message and there was no temporary file to retrieve. It was as if I had never opened the program.
WRAP AND RESIZE
Like FullWrite Professional, Word includes an option to wrap text around irregularly shaped objects. The program automatically wraps text as soon as you select the appropriate option in the picture toolbar and then gives you a series of handles that allow you to fine-tune this wrap. On the other hand, if you later decide to resize the object, all bets are off and text flows awkwardly into the graphic.
I’ve used Office applications for years and it seems that with each new version, the toolbars get more and more awkward to organize. Though Office 98 includes several new toolbars that offer access to more features, there’s no simple way to manage them. You can select which toolbars you want displayed from the View/Toolbars Menu, but I would prefer a context sensitive method to summon appropriate toolbars like via the Word Perfect button bar.
FAT AND UGLY
The code for office is both enormous and invasive with hundreds of megabytes scattered around your hard disk including the extensions and preferences folders. When I installed Microsoft Bookshelf, I noted that several of the Microsoft extensions were duplicated. Frankly, I don’t know which extensions or preferences are required to run Office, which are just desirable, and the impact of turning one or more off. This makes the process of trapping extension conflicts very problematic.
BIG BROTHER OR UNCLE BOB?
I was experimenting around with saving files in HTML format and uploading them to my web page, when I was suddenly interrupted by a dialogue box that notified me that some of my templates were out of date and asked if I wanted to update them. The initial shock was soon replaced with curiosity and so I said ‘Yeah, sure’ (or something to that effect). The program then accessed the Microsoft web site and downloaded the new versions of the templates.
It took me a while to process exactly what had transpired and I’m still not sure whether I should be pleased or appalled. Clearly, there was some communication between Microsoft and my version of Word to the extent that it needed to be upgraded. It’s also quite possible that Microsoft now knows what version of Word I am using. It makes me wonder what other information has been or will be transferred to Redmond. It’s almost something right out of ‘The Why Files!’
I sent this Word 98 formatted column to Russ Walkowich, the Editor of MyMac, and he immediately informed me that when he opened the file, his recently-used file list under the File Menu was changed to reflect several documents from my computer. In fact, we wondered if my recent file list was exported with the document, but it was not. Word must have randomly picked some file names from my hard drive—either active or deleted, it was hard to discern—and for some unknown reason, bundled it with my column. (Incidentally, my Word 98 recent files list now seems to include Word Work Files that, of course, can’t be opened—yet another feature/bug.)
The same day that this happened, MacFixIt <http://www.macfixit.com>, one of the most useful web sites for all Mac users, reported an even more alarming situation. Apparently, on occasion Word also grabs whole chunks of text either from open applications, active files on the hard drive, or deleted files, and inserts this text invisibly into your document. Though you can’t see the text with Word, if you open a Word 98 document with BBEdit (Any Files Option), you can. So, for example, if I had written a nasty letter to a friend complaining about the My Mac editor’s tendency to be overly critical, a copy might inadvertently be included with my column! Just kidding Russ, but you see the enormous security implications!
Another disconcerting security hole results from Microsoft including file management options from the Open dialogue box. Imagine if you will a Macintosh installed in a public place like a school or library. Anyone could access the Open File dialogue box, click the Find File button, and voila!—you can then find files of any type you like (including System files) and place them in the Trash. When I tried this with the System file, I hurriedly went to the Trash and selected ‘Put Away’ from the File Menu only to be told that I couldn’t put the System file away because it had been put in the Trash. This ‘feature’ allows anyone to drive a truck through interface controls like At Ease. (Thanks to Ramon Yvarra and the MacEvangelist mailing lists for pointing this out!)
Going for Gold
If you are willing to put up with the inconvenience of the occasional glitch and the frustration of a few design anomalies, Office 98 delivers more accessible power than any program suite on the market. The combination of the Office 98 applications with Bookshelf, Encarta, and FrontPage is an irresistible buy for educators, students, and writers.