Starting out with Office 2007

Some new software: Microsoft Office 2007. I haven’t bought a new version of Office since 2002, so today I bit the bullet and grabbed the £199 upgrade. I didn’t even know there was an Office 2007 until last week; like Vista, the market’s just sighed and shrugged. Microsoft’s becoming no more important to the computing world than British Rail is to transport: you don’t get excited about it, it’s just a bit of infrastructure you have to use.

Microsoft understands this, so the one coruscating idea behind Office 2007 is to make it as visible as possible. Of which more later.

Initial thought: it used to be the case that anybody not buying a ‘Professional’ edition lost out, with crippled versions and vital apps missing. Not any more. The Small Business edition’s got everything I need: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. (There’s Publisher too, but nobody uses that.) The Pro editions contain some extra apps only of use in enterprises with specific IT policies: You Will Use Sharepoint, for example. No loss to me.

First up: Outlook. And it’s good. The Calendar is better organised, with more of my month visible onscreen (I use a lot of recurring appointments reminding me of everything from my wake-up exercise routine to whether it’s a fish, meat, or vegetable-based dinner night, so each day’s appointments list tends to look a bit packed if I’m not at 1600 x 1200.) But if anything, it’s a bit too vivid. Colours denoting different types of appointment are screamingly saturated, when they should be faint accents providing unobtrusive visual cues. It’s going to get tiring unless I can find a way out.

Email works fine. (There was a bug in Outlook 2002 that prevented effective POPping from any account needing authentication, and since my email’s in an encrypted volume on a sub-boot scrambled hard disk over an anonymising tunnel, that created issues.) The email preview pane is better organised than before, and a sheaf of emails fall to the eye more easily.

Word. Here’s where the problems start. There are some useful touches – like a constant wordcount on the status bar – but the menus and taskbars are HUGE. The UX Redmondites have attempted to update the decades-old standard clutch of menus by grouping Wordy tasks – Insert, Layout, References, Mailing – into ‘ribbons’, but when you use twenty other apps on a regular basis the lack of good ol’ File / Edit / View / Select hurts.

Word 2007 makes the mistake of thinking you need all its functionality visible, and due to this the taskbar is a set of gigantic clunky boxes for stuff you’ll only need once in a blue moon: Themes, Styles, Illustrations, Page Background… all mixed in with everyday stuff like cut and paste. WHAT, for example, is the ‘Styles’ ribbon doing? It takes up half the width of the screen with 11 small examples of how my text would look if I applied a particular style; as visually irritating as having a daisychain of Post-Its stuck to your monitor. Not good; I hope it’s customisable, because I want all this gunk out.

Excel. Same trouble as Word, but it’s friendlier than 2002. Buttons for summing and other formulas feel more part of the application, equal to the data on the spreadsheet, rather than arcane things to be hunted down and applied with fingers crossed. It seems Microsoft said, ‘Hey, it’s a spreadsheet’ and didn’t clog it up with Clippy-type stuff. PowerPoint is the same: friendlier and easier to use.

But Microsoft – why, oh why, does everything have to have that swirly blue background? Can’t I just set it to plain white? It seems my point about your software being just plumbing these days really hurts: you’re determined that I should never, ever forget who’s providing my software, by putting your corporate colours front and centre while I’m working. In a reasonable upgrade, this is bad news, and I’m already searching for a hack.

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