To say that Office 2000, Microsoft's all-purpose software, does maths, prints on paper and makes slide shows on the screen, is the shortest of shorthand. Office 2000, which first appeared in summer, is a bumper bundle with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other programs depending on the pack you buy. Here is software that lets you make Web pages, put them on a school intranet and use them in ways that visionaries have often talked about but few had a clue how to do: now you can run a discussion area on the school website or even broadcast the school play from it. Here is something to tickle the fancy of the most fanciful.
If you would rather not be doing any of that, there is still enough to be doing. Word, for example, looks and feels as familiar as any typist would want it to be. When they need to piece together a report, a clipboard now lets them 'copy' not one but a dozen items in succession. They can stash of all sorts of material here and copy graphs, bits of Web pages, and pictures from an encyclopaedia before finally returning to Word to paste it all on the page.
Tables are cleverer and well worth getting to grips with. You can adjust the sizes of columns and rows, dragging their borders to suit the page or do a trick where you hold down ALT to fit them to an exact size. Or you can forget fiddling with column sizes altogether as Word will widen the columns to fit the text as you type. Tables now really come into their own for laying out a page as you can drag them to another part of the page and have the text run around their borders. Quite usefully you drag a table's corner and the whole table will resize and yet keep its columns in proportion.
In line with today's trend towards electronic information, Word's ability to save work as Web pages is much enhanced. For starters, you can now create an elaborate page layout in Word and it still looks pretty good when you save it as a Web page. The reason is that Word can save and load in a 'high fidelity' Web page file format - what's more anyone with a Web browser should be able to read this. In fact this Web page format is key to the whole business of Office as both Excel and Powerpoint can save work in this universal format. To maintain full compatibility, Office 2000's normal file formats are just as readable with Office 97.
Word's Internet features let you make a small web site, make pages with framed menus, and add pop-up screen tips to guide a pupil through a worksheet. The Excel program gets really clever as you can add 'interactivity' when you save a spreadsheet - this lets pupils play with numbers on a web page and see the effect on a graph.
Powerpoint, which many pupils dote on for their project work, will do less doting as their text automatically resizes to fit the slide. The presentation program also offers a new three-pane view of a slide show that lets them edit text, notes and graphics all in the one screen. This in turn, can be published as an impressive set of web pages, just with a single button. Those that are ready for it can add video and synchronised commentary to their slides, or broadcast assemblies and prize days on the web and will no doubt soon find themselves in hyperspace.
Greatly speeding up the hassle of putting work on the Internet, the network manager can let a class save their work direct to a 'Web folder' for all to see. This feature alone offers a great deal of easy publishing power - for example, given a web folder, teachers should be able to build themselves a handy intranet - a public filling cabinet if you like - containing their life's work.
It soon becomes clear that despite rudimentary enhancements, Office really takes flight when you are on an intranet. Whereas previous editions of Word offered ways to add annotations and comments to documents, there's now a way to take that collaboration onto the web. in future when others view your work in a web browser it sports a 'discuss' button that allows others to comment on it. So Just when you thought your work was complete, your assembly over, or your policy written, others can go to the bit they quibble over, click the button and pick their holes. Evidently in the wired world, while you need no longer meet with others or you can at least work with those far away.
If you've ever found that your computer couldn't read a certain type of file, Office 2000 now helps you round this. In the past, if you needed a feature that wasn't installed, or read work from another machine, your system would play clueless and give up. Office now takes a more intelligent approach and requests the cdrom so that it can install it. Those who manage networks might offer everyone a typical set of features, and leave Office to install new ones as people need them. It should save on disc space and save on their being hassled too. Time will tell.
Office for the Macintosh on a different development schedule to the PC, so with PC and Mac editions leapfrogging each other over the years, Apple users are at least spared the decision to upgrade or not. Office nevertheless offers something for all but the typist. Those running it across networks and intranets can make some educational visions become real and put them to the test. Make no mistake, Office 2000 is interesting and for those with time to experiment a way to go. It's down to network politics as to whether such power is ever offered to the people.
You can get up to speed with 'In and Out of the Classroom with Office 2000' a free downloadable guide available from the US Microsoft Education at www.microsoft.com/education
MS Office 2000 is available in several different upgrade bundles and best purchased with a new PC or discounts through education resellers.