A Word of Advice

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted March 12, 2007

At a gala event introducing Windows Vista and Office 2007 in January, Microsoft called it the most significant product launch in the company's history – the first time it debuted new versions of its two flagship offerings at the same time. Mostly, of course, it was pure hype.

Vista has yet to prove it can solve the most pressing problems that beset its predecessor, Windows XP – namely security and stability. Office 2007, while it contains some startling visual changes and may provide real benefit to some people, is a mixed blessing for anyone heavily invested in previous versions.

With this review of Word 2007, we begin an ongoing series that will look in turn at each of the major components in the new Office suite.

Microsoft’s boast with Word 2007 is that it “helps you create great-looking documents more quickly and more easily than ever before.” The main way it does this is by radically revamping the user interface, replacing menus and toolbars with a “ribbon” and panels (Microsoft calls them tabs) that stretch across the screen and graphically depict groups of functions. The ribbon interface appears in all major Office modules.

Microsoft Word screen shotYou'll find fonts grouped under the Home Panel on Word's new ribbon interface. (Click for larger image).

New FeaturesThere are a bunch of less-visibly noticeable new features and improvements, including the ability to convert Word files to PDF and XML Paper Specification (XPS) formats within Word, enhancements to spell checking, including the ability to detect contextual spelling errors (incorrect use of homonyms) and privacy and security features related to sharing documents, such as the ability to easily remove metadata and personal information before sending out documents.

Microsoft has also created a new file format for Word 2007, Word XML. The new format dramatically reduces file sizes and, because it conforms to XML standards, makes it easier to integrate Word files with other information systems and external data sources. It cannot, however, be read by earlier versions of Word.

By far the most significant change is the user interface. Microsoft says it is intended to make more program functions visible to customers so they can: a) find the ones they already know more quickly and easily, and b) see previously hidden features and begin to use new ones, thereby gaining further productivity benefits.

Insiders mention another reason. The program had become so feature-laden that drop down text menus would be too long to display in their entirety on some computer screens.

Wins and LossesThe new interface may ultimately be easier to use – once you’ve learned it – and may shave seconds off some document production tasks. But anyone well-versed in previous versions of Word should be aware of the costs involved to reap those benefits.

It’s not just the cost in lost productivity while learning a new interface. If you’ve extensively customized Word in previous versions – as we had – those customizations go out the window (so to speak), though you can recover some of them. Macros – little programs you can write within Word to quickly perform complex or repetitive tasks – also disappear in the immediate aftermath of upgrading to Windows 2007. Again, you can recover them with a little effort, but many of them will not work if they involve aspects of the interface that have changed.

The worst of it, for people who are very familiar with and who rely upon Word, is that Word 2007 is overall less customizable than previous versions. A simple example: you cannot change the icons on toolbar or tab buttons.

For casual dabblers, though, who haven’t done much customization, don’t write Word macros and don’t intend to start, these problems are of little concern. Microsoft overhauled the user interface for them – the vast majority. Others can simply choose not to upgrade, or spend the time and effort on recovering or recreating customizations and macros, to the extent possible.

Radically New LookThe immediately visible features of the new interface include a large button in the top left corner (the Office Button), a Mini Toolbar extending out to the right from the Office Button, and what looks like a menu bar with new top-line items – Home, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review and View. Microsoft now refers to the menu bar as the ribbon. When you select a top-line item, it displays a tabbed panel instead of a text list.

Let’s take the new features one at a time.

Clicking the Office Button opens a vertical panel with some of the key file-related functions – new, open, save – previously found in the File menu. Mousing over an item displays a list of further options in the panel to the right. Under Save-As, for example, you can choose Word Document, Word Template, Word 97-2003 Document and Other Formats.

An all-new item, Prepare – i.e. prepare documents for distribution – gives access to options such as Properties, Inspect Document (for hidden metadata), Encrypt Document and Add a Digital Signature (another new feature).

Clicking the small Word Options button at the bottom of the Office panel launches a new panel with a vertical list of configuration options of the kind found under Tools/Options in previous versions. Selecting an item (Popular, Display, Proofing, Save, etc.) displays additional choices in the panel to the right, most of them requiring you to check or uncheck a box. A simplified version of the Tools/Customization dialog from earlier Word versions is now accessible via a menu item in Windows Options.

The Mini Toolbar, also referred to as the Quick Access Toolbar, extends along the title bar at the very top of the screen, but can optionally be moved to below the ribbon. In the default configuration, it displays three unlabeled icon buttons: Save, Undo and Redo. The icon buttons are slightly smaller, but otherwise this toolbar looks and works like toolbars in past versions.

Microsoft Word screen shotNeed to insert a citation into your document? Head for the References tab on the ribbon. (Click for larger image).

You can customize the Quick Access Toolbar – using the Word Options/Customize dialog – to display any command. This toolbar is the only one of its kind, however. And adding command icons to it is the only substantive customization that you can do. Word 2003 included many specialized toolbars with thematically grouped buttons – e.g. Drawing, E-mail, Web, Mail Merge – which you could choose to display or not, and could freely customize. You could also create entirely new custom toolbars. This is all gone in Word 2007.

Pretty RibbonsThe boldest – and most immediately disorienting – stroke is the revamping of the top menu bar (now called the ribbon) and the replacement of vertical drop-down lists of menu options with horizontal panels with icon buttons.

It’s not that they don’t give you a quick visual grasp of what’s available. And it’s not that the features and functions aren’t well organized into logical groupings. It’s just that it’s so radically different. It will take most people days at least before they begin to reap the supposed benefits of easier and faster operation. In the meantime, they’ll be groping to find features.

In the default mode, selecting a ribbon item displays a panel. It is possible, however, to “minimize” the ribbon so that only the text headings show and a panel drops down only when you click a heading.

Think of the ribbon panels as multi-layer toolbars. In each one, you’ll see a few or several groupings of labeled buttons, with a title identifying the group at the bottom. Groupings in the Home panel, for example, include Clipboard, Font, Paragraph, Styles and Editing. The Font grouping includes a font selector drop-down list and 13 other buttons or objects related to font control.

In the bottom right corner of most groupings, you’ll see a small expansion button. When you click it, the button pops up a dialog box, often virtually identical to a dialog box from past versions of the program. Click the expansion button in the bottom right of the Font grouping, for example, and the full Font dialog from Word 2003 appears.

Other top-line items and panel groupings:

  • Insert (Pages, Tables, Illustrations, Links, Header & Footer, Text and Symbols)
  • Page Layout (Themes, Page Setup, Page Background, Paragraph and Arrange)
  • References (Table of Contents, Footnotes, Citations & Bibliography, Captions, Index, Table of Authorities)
  • Mailings (Create, Start Mail Merge, Write & Insert Fields, Preview Results, Finish)
  • Review (Proofing, Comments, Tracking, Changes, Compare, Protect)
  • View (Document Views, Show/Hide, Zoom, Window, Macros)

Bottom LineWord 2007 includes all or most of the functions and features of past versions of the program – they’re just organized and presented differently. For a first-time customer, this interface might actually be easier to learn because it is more logical and visual. For the rest of us, it will be a little like learning to type with a new keyboard layout. A period of adjustment will be required. Then you may see some productivity improvements.

More troubling is the loss of customization features. You can no longer change context-sensitive (right-click) menus, for example – something we did to add items to the right-click menus we use constantly. You cannot add new (or remove existing) top-line ribbon items, as you could top-line menu items in past versions. You cannot add new (or remove existing) buttons on ribbon tabs. Microsoft insiders say some customization features may be reinstated in future releases, but nothing has been said officially.

If you’ve invested heavily in writing macros and customizing your current version of Word, think long and hard about whether Word 2007's new features and the possible productivity benefits from a more user-friendly interface are worth the pain of migration. On the other hand, you will eventually have to convert because at some point Microsoft will stop supporting earlier versions.

Be sure to read our reviews on the other major applications in Microsoft Office 2007: Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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