If you use an office productivity suite, you are probably using Microsoft Office. Like it or not, most of us depend on the tools and applications in Microsoft’s Office. Yet most of us use only a fraction of its full capabilities.

In Office 2007, due out soon, Microsoft’s developers set out to expose many of Office’s buried features and make them more accessible through a streamlined user interface that could change the way you work.

I have been running various pre-release versions of Office 2007 for almost a year. There are many changes, including the new interface designed to reduce desktop clutter and make it easier to find and use application features.

Central to the interface is the Ribbon, a navigation tool that replaces the toolbars, menus, task panes and dialogue boxes of earlier versions.

The main Office Ribbon runs across the screen near the top just below a row of familiar-looking context-sensitive text commands. Unlike the traditional Office toolbar, with its square icons, the Ribbon comprises tabs designed to display the commands that are most relevant for each of four main applications in Office – Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access. For example, Word 2007 has tabs for writing, inserting, page layout, working with references, creating mailings, and reviewing documents. Excel 2007 has a similar set of tabs for spreadsheet work such as creating worksheets, inserting objects such as charts and graphics, page layout, working with formulas and managing data.

Instead of presenting users with a vast array of confusing commands, Office 2007 is smart enough to present relevant commands based on context. So the commands for editing a chart appear only when a chart appears in a spreadsheet and the user is focusing on modifying it.

In an effort to simplify changing the look and feel of Office documents, most application Ribbons include Galleries of thumbnail images. By presenting a set of “pick and click” potential results, Galleries simplify the process of producing professional-looking work, including PowerPoint presentations.

Reinforcing this, a new technology called Live Preview shows the results of applying an editing or formatting change as the user moves the pointer over options in a Gallery.

Ribbons are not the only change in the interface. Office 2007 is designed to exploit the look and feel of Vista, Microsoft’s new operating system. And there are other small but interesting new interface features, such as Word 2007’s current word count in the status bar and a slide bar for zooming in and out.

The Office Ribbon is the most obvious interface change and it requires getting used to. But the effort is worthwhile because many obscure but powerful Office features become more accessible, and because of the ease and speed of producing great-looking documents. Hardcore shortcut users like me will be relieved to know that Office 2007 supports shortcut keys.

Another big change is that Office 2007 is based on a new file format called Open XML. This has some big advantages such as tighter integration between applications, including shared diagramming and charting, significantly smaller file sizes, better file recovery and better security. But users will have to get used to a new set of file extensions and anyone with an old version of Office will have to download a compatibility file from Microsoft to open an Office 2007 file.

The other fundamental change is that search is built into all Office applications so it is easier to find documents.

On individual Office components, Microsoft has tweaked some and made big improvements to others.

Word 2007, Microsoft’s word processor, gets a new multipane view that makes comparing different versions of a document easier. It includes a new Document Inspector that helps check a document and make changes.

The enhancements in Excel 2007 are minor, but include some nice touches such as conditional formatting and data visualisation techniques that make it easier to “read” data or spot trends.

PowerPoint 2007 gets some fancy formatting options and a feature called SmartArt that simplifies changing the look of one slide or a whole deck.

Other neat features include being able to create a new task simply by assigning a date to an e-mail, and you can drag and drop tasks into the calendar to turn them into appointments. E-mail attachments are now viewable within Outlook so you do not have to open up a separate application.

Microsoft Office 2007 is an impressive package. More casual users may be happy sticking with an older Office package or a lower-cost alternative such as Corel’s WordPerfect Office or Sun MicroSystem’s StarOffice, or even one of the emerging web-based suites.

But for heavy duty service, Office 2007 sets the new benchmark.

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