Thursday, 29 June, 2006

I've download Microsoft Office 2007 this weekend and tried it out on the family PC. I'm normally a user of OpenOffice when I have the choice but I wanted to see what the latest competition is like.

I'm going to start by saying that I'm generally in favour of Free Software. Although I'd stop short of calling myself a Free Software zealot because I'll gladly use proprietary software provided it offers a clear advantage over its free alternative. I'll also declare that I'm looking at this product through admittedly narrow focus of typical home use. I don't think this is entirely unfair because Microsoft have made a number of moves towards attracting home users to upgrade, as we shall see.

Let's assume for the moment that you got Microsoft Office 2003 on your PC when you bought it a year ago. What would reason would you to upgrade to the latest version? Microsoft has a really serious problem here. As they keep making their products better and better they have to compete with their previous release of the product. Microsoft is Microsoft's own worst enemy.

In terms of home use, there has not been a great deal of change in functionality since Microsoft Office 97. All the Office products after have been stable, reliable and highly flexible pieces of software. That said, the amount of functionality used by the average home user has not really changed in the last ten years. In order for Microsoft Office 2007 to be attractive for home use it has to offer real advantages over what came before.

Over the past five years, blogging (I really hate that word, but I'll move on) has become a force on the Internet. As such, Microsoft has added a feature into Microsoft Word that allows you to publish entries to your blog from inside the package.

This is quite a cool idea, I just hope that the protocol for doing this is open and that other blogging web-sites can implement the interface. However, this is Microsoft so I'm not holding my breath. I fully expect this to only work with their Windows Live product but I would like to be proven wrong for once.

In Microsoft Word they have also added a "Save to PDF" feature. This is a feature that has been in other products, such as OpenOffice, for many years and is very handy indeed. A lot of people have Adobe Acrobat or other third-party products which they use to generate PDFs. The fact this is now been integrated directly in Office 2007 means such products are no longer absolutely neccessary.

It's also worth pointing out that Microsoft have created their own PDF-like format, called XPS. In spite of this, the PDF export format is the default option on this dialog. I'm impressed with this, normally Microsoft would default to their own format and try and foist it on every one by the back door.

Is this the sign of a new Microsoft or is it simply the market reality that everyone wants to publish to PDF rather than their own format? Who knows?

The design of a lot of Office has changed considerably in this version. Instead of having the traditional toolbar and menu structure, they've opted for a new interface called "The ribbon". It's a tabbed interface with different bits of functionality on each tab.

Once you've gotten used to this way of working, I think the ribbon functions a lot better than the menu and toolbars it replaced. It's certainly much faster to work with. I wouldn't say that the ribbon alone is a reason to bin Microsoft Office 2003 - anything but in fact - but it's a nice piece of functionality. I expect it to be copied in a whole host of applications.

One thing to note about this release of Office is that much like the previous version, style is of central importance to the product. Everything looks very polished and it's very quick. Once Microsoft Word has opened, which itself only takes ten seconds or so, the operation of the program is lightning fast.

To me, this does not matter so much because I'm not really aesthetically aware (you only need look as far as the design of this site to see that) but there are a lot of people who like both form and function. My brother is one of these people and he is very impressed with how the product looks.

I've spoken a lot about Microsoft Word in this post and I want to now focus on Microsoft Outlook.

Microsoft Outlook 2003 was a huge upgrade. Everybody who was using Outlook should have upgraded to this version. It contained such a large number of improvements and if I'd had to, I'd have definitely purchased it. In contrast, however, Outlook 2007 is a mere incremental improvement.

That said, the difference between jumping between Office 2002 and Office 2003 was absolutely huge. To repeat that in a follow on release was always going to be difficult. Depsite the fact that the release is mearly incremental there are still a few features in there that I like.

I like the rebranded to-do feature. To-do has always been side feature of Outlook. You had to add tasks manually and set reminders and what not. What Microsoft have acknowledged in this latest release is that e-mail is often used for setting tasks for people. People don't generally use the inbuilt ability to set tasks for other people, rather they just compose and e-mail that says, do this.

In this version of Outlook, they've added the ability to not only mark an e-mail for follow-up but also to specify when you should follow it up. All e-mails that are marked for follow-up automatically get added to the Todo list. These features, taken together, are highly valuable. If I know a task set in an e-mail needs to be done before the end of the week I can mark it for follow-up for that date and it'll automatically add it to my to-do list.

What I've said there is more of a business requirement than anything else, so I've been a bit naughty and wandered off scope a little bit. It's still arguable that it's useful feature in a home environment. After all, we get e-mails from relatives that we might want to follow-up later. I admit that this is a bit of a stretch.

The next killer feature is the addition of RSS feeds in to Outlook 2007. This has been done really very well. Up until now I've used Google Reader to aggregate my RSS feeds. This is no longer the case. After downloading the beta I've ported all my feeds to Outlook 2007. Quite simply, I find that it beats the pants of Thunderbird for RSS aggregation.

The feeds in Thunderbird behave much like a bolt on; they're an afterthought and managed through a clumsy interface. In Thunderbird, unless you do everything exactly right it is very easy to stuff up your feeds.

I always prefer to have my feeds organised in a hierarchal structure. It's a simple request but it can be a nightmare to get Thunderbird to behave itself when you're adding feeds. Outlook 2007 just does the whole thing much better. I can drag and drop feeds in to folders and be done with it.

The feed items in Outlook 2007 behave much like e-mails in other parts of the program. They can be forwarded, be marked for follow up and they are received in the same way; through the "send and receive" dialog.

All in all, I think that while the functionality in Microsoft Office 2007 is superior to what the Open Source equivalents offer, that is not what matters. What matter is whether it is worth the money.

The problem from my perspective is that it is very hard to compete with something that is free. Microsoft Office 2007 might well be pretty and packed with features but for a couple of hundred pounds it has to demonstrate some fundamental improvements over the Open Source products.

This is what kills Microsoft Office for me. When I first started using the product twelve years ago, I was just a young boy starting out on his high school education. Even in this pre-historic era, the Microsoft Word of the time was already fully mature and had all the features you could ever use.

In the past this didn't matter because you had to pay for any office suite. When you've already committed to spending money, why not spend a little more and get the best? The problem now is that over the last few years, the situation has changed for Microsoft. The open source competition has improved considerably and it is getting harder to compete with them. Every year, these products continue to stand taller than those that came before and they continue to implement more and more of the features that people need.

That said, Microsoft were 90% of the way there with this release. The created enough clear water between them and the competition for me to consider the purchase. For some people, there will be enough water to justify the upgrade. But for me at least, I remain unconvinced.


21:41:35 GMT | #Randomness | Permalink
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