It's hard to imagine me sitting down to say nice things about a Microsoft product. Ever since Microsoft Office 4.2, when I threw the blasted thing in the trash and took a solemn vow to never buy another product from someone who could create such and abomination, I vowed I would never sully my hard drive with another application from Microsoft. When my wife insisted on getting PowerPoint to work on presentations for her clients, I made her get her own machine. After this month's meeting, I may be ready to break that solemn vow I made so many years ago. After all, if Apple and Microsoft can kiss and make nice, maybe I can bend a little.
Danielle Tiedt, Product Manager for Office 98 for Macintosh came in from Redmond to show off her product. Rather than make the Office 4.2 mistake again, this time Microsoft created an entirely new division to define and create truly Macintosh products. As Danielle noted, they even went so far as to move the OK button to the correct place and redesigned all 700+ dialog boxes to make them Macintosh. The color scheme, rounded tabs, everything.
The first thing you'll notice about Office 98 is the installation procedure. Remember Drag & Drop install? Drag the icon from the floppy to your hard disk? It's back. Anyone who struggled with Office 4.2's 30 disk install only to have it break the first time you moved or renamed anything will appreciate this feature. With Office 98 you just drag the Office 98 folder from the CD-ROM to the hard drive. And if you should be cleaning up your hard drive one day and mistakenly drag one of Office 98's required files into the trash, never fear; the program automatically repairs itself!
When you begin to work with the product, you immediately come upon another of Microsoft's new innovations, Office Assistant. He's named Max. He looks like a Mac Classic with feet, and he watches what you are doing and offers to help. If you are stumped, he will look up the answer using a "natural language" query. If you don't like Max, you can choose other assistants including one that looks like Shakespeare and another one which bears remarkable resemblance to a famous Austrian physicist but, assures Microsoft, this is pure coincidence.
For example if you start typing "Dear Uncle John," Max will pipe up with "I notice you are writing a letter, would you like to use the Letter Wizard?" You of course can turn these intrusions off at any time using the Preferences (the Options are no more).
One of the things I hate to do in almost all word processors is to create tables. It seems that I can never get things to line up and perform the way I want them to. I almost always have a requirement to have mixed sizes of boxes that don't fit rigid patterns. Enter Table Draw. You just click on the little pencil in the Tables and Borders tool bar and draw the table just like you want it. If you change your mind, just grab the eraser and get rid of the line you don't want. You can even type your text at the top, bottom or center of any cell, and format it with any font or style and rotate it 90 degrees!
Similarly, drawing objects in a Word document was a true chore. Word now has a drawing layer with a complete set of easy to use controls. There is the usual set of drawing tools (line, brush, bucket). There is an Auto Shapes tool with basic shapes, arrows, flowchart symbols, stars, callouts and lines. To make them interesting, there is a 3-D control and a Shadow Tool. There is also a Word Art tool to pump-up your text in colorful and twisted ways. You can also easily flow your text around the outside or inside of a shape.
As you type you may notice red and green squiggles appear under your text. The red squiggles indicate that your word may be misspelled. I emphasize may, as the word Internet was flagged. The green squiggles mean that the grammar checker has a problem with your prose. (The mnemonic to remember this is green for grammar, red for wrong.) If you want to correct the word, simply option-click on it and a contextual menu pops up with the suggested correction. It can even look up synonyms in a thesaurus while you're at it. Oh, one more thing, the Font menu is now WYSIWYG.
There is an Auto-Summarize function that scans your document and picks out keywords and creates a rough index of the document contents. You can then click on any of these keywords and hyperlink to that place in the document. You can also save your document as HTML and publish it on the Web. Word also automatically recognizes http: and mailto: keywords and converts them to hyperlinks. If you click on them, your default email client or browser launches (Microsoft Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, of course).
Well, now on to Excel. One of the nicest new features is that you can use Natural Language Formulas. Say you have two columns labeled Cost and Sales. You could compute result the normal way with (=A2/B2) or simply type =Cost/Sales. If you make a mistake, "range finders" help you fix it. The erroneous formula will be color-coded. As you point to each colored term, the referenced data in the spreadsheet will be outlined in that color.
The best new feature, in my opinion, is the new Print Preview. When you are in print preview and you see that the page breaks, as usual, aren't where you want them, you can simply move the page boundaries around and drag elements where you want them. Excel adjusts everything and viola! Other things that improved are the ability to indent within a cell. The number of characters in a cell went from 255 to 32,767 and the number of rows in a spreadsheet increased from 16,384 to 65,535.
Workgroups will love the new Sharing feature. It allows several persons to make changes to an Excel or Word document. Office 98 keeps track of the changes, who made them and when, and can display the original and changed values for each individual or for the entire file.
Microsoft PowerPoint, likewise, has many new features. There are libraries of effects, sounds and graphics which allow you to put together a pretty flashy slide show quickly. As one who has to sit through endless numbers of these things, the gimmicks quickly tire. I sometimes wish it wasn't so easy to use this stuff. Don't let my lack of enthusiasm for endless meetings deter you if you need this stuff.
As usual we closed the meeting with our door-prize drawing. Microsoft was particularly generous, bringing everything from post it pads to two copies of Office 98 for Macintosh.
Microsoft Encarta was won by Bill Krieger. Walter Forlini and Tim Nugent won hats. Microsoft Joystick went to Stuart Bonwit who gave it back and we drew again and gave it to Debra Stancil. I would think that Stuart could use the joystick to whip that ballerina around quite briskly. A Bridge Too Far was won by Laura Palmer. Dan Wages won a book, but nobody bothered to write down which one on the prize form, and I can't remember the title. Office 98 for Macintosh T-shirts: Bob O'Brien, Jean Koike, Donald Eckstein, George Lewis, Needham W. Langston, Jr., James Kolb, Wilmer J. Whetzel, Jr. James P. Schroff, Jan Bailey, R. Clifton Bailey, Johnna Sears and Myron Harrison. Judy Edelson won a PowerPoint Infrared Control. Peter Colm left with Stencil-It. Microsoft Post-it pads went home with Joan Moody, Charles Ostrofsky, Daniel Settles, Donald Fortnum and Dave Hull. Microsoft Bookshelf was won by James J. McDonnell. Susan Kayser won the Microsoft Office 98 Gold Edition (noting at the bottom of her prize form that she will now have to replace her IIci)! Vernice Christian won the Office 98 for Macintosh. Doug McNeill also won a prize, but I can't read what David wrote on the prize form, and he doesn't remember what else we gave away.
That's it for this month. Thanks as always to the many people who make this meeting happen. Special thanks to Lawrence Charters for handling the Question and Answer session and to my kids for helping out. See you next month.