going out to the web with Microsoft Office (1999)

Later this year Microsoft releases another incarnation of its Office suite of applications. It will have been three years since Office 97 appeared and hinted at the ways in which the word processor, spreadsheet and database could impinge on the Internet. For any application that’s a long time – its life spanning three operating systems from Windows 95 to Windows 2000 – never mind it outliving a handful of Internet browsers.
This time Office will arrive not only singing Internet songs, but singing more loudly than before. Currently we have a magnum opus of applications that can save work as web pages, create ‘links’ between documents and will pop off to the Internet with only the slightest encouragement. There are also powerful features that allow database machinery to mesh with the online world and provide information that is live and fresh off a hard disc.

Office 2000 now realises that HTML web pages are the songs of the Internet. With them, people can share information without asking whether someone can handle Word 6 or Word 95 files. And if sharing means that those in an organisation aren’t inventing wheels they need to pool work on an Internet or Intranet.

Office 2000 dances intriguingly to this tune: work can now effortlessly be saved as web pages and put on a web server. If you wish, Word will drop the idea of a ‘Word file’ – a binary file format and as such proprietary. Whereas previously, all manner of formatting would be thrown to the dogs when you save an HTML file, Word embeds ‘tags’ in the file that enable it to retain the richness of the original document. In practice the transition from Word to web page and back again was impressive – in fact laying out a complex Web page in Word was many times easier than any HTML editor. Even exclusive Word tricks such as document annotations – where you scratch comments on someone else’s work, are preserved, making an Intranet more truly into a shared hard disc.

Likewise it proved no more difficult to save an Excel budget spreadsheet with data and graphs as a web page. When viewed in a browser, a click brought this to life again such that figures could be changed and graphs updated. Similarly, PowerPoint, the slide show program need no longer be the tool of modern evangelists. It remains a quick means to dazzling presentations which can now be just as quickly turned in a show that looks twice as cool inside a browser. A new feature called Presentation Broadcast allows the web-style offering to be sent across a network to users’ screens. A Microsoft Netshow server allows the slides to be accompanied by streaming audio and video – and should anyone be out of the office at the time, they can pick up the presentation on demand. And as we’ve come to expect in an integrated software suite, Outlook, the diary application can be set up to remind that there’s a show in the air and provides to allow them to join in. I would guess that those involved in broadcast training might look out for a new generation of people ready to join them soon.

If any of that seems hard, saving work to the web with Office 2000 appears straightforward. The tool is simply a restyled file-save dialogue with pre-set locations for your personal files, but now with the addition of ‘Web folders’. These folders are simply destinations on the web or Intranet that you can save to like a disc. To help with consistency, Office applications offer themes – a type of style sheet that helps shape different pieces of work with a corporate colour scheme.

Beside this, enhancements in the ‘Office’ interface must seem passé. Menus have become ‘clever’ such that they now adjust to their usage – used menu items stay up on top in the list that drops down while unused one are relegated to a second level and out of the way. Similarly, ignored toolbar buttons shuffle along to save screen space – if any buttons have disappeared they’ll be in a ‘bucket’ not far away. Most amusingly – because this will go over the heads of the few remaining typewriter users – Word will now let them click half-down a page and start typing just where they want to.

Add to this an endless clipboard that lets you scour the Internet, documents, or whatever and collate your finds with less copying and pasting and here’s another party trick to go surfing with. Pretty soon you get the idea that it’s time to move out of the studio and move into a web browser.

Roger Frost is an IT consultant and writer in the UK

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