Office 2000: What Microsoft's hiding

Office 2000: What Microsoft's hiding

The mother of all office suites has landed. Microsoft's long-awaited Office 2000 delivers a boatload of small improvements. But many users will want to steer clear of one of its most highly touted features.

As part of the company's effort to make all of its products Web-centric, every application in the suite can save documents as Web pages, with formatting, formulas and macros intact. Thereafter, anybody who has a Web browser should be able to view Office 2000 documents in all their glory. But there's a significant problem.

If you save particularly long or complex Office files as Web pages, many non-Microsoft applications - including Netscape Navigator and Composer - will not be able to read them.

The good news. Users will find many intriguing new features in Office's latest version. Among the highlights:

File Open and File Save dialog boxes have added a browser-style history list of recently used files and foldersThe suite now has its own clipboard, which can hold as many as 12 items at a timeOffice 2000 can repair itself, automatically replacing crucial program files that are missing or damagedThe Single Document Interface places an individual button for each open file on the Windows taskbarMenus can adapt to your work patterns, putting items you use frequently on the top level, and those you rarely open on submenus belowYou can choose high, medium, or low security settings, and ward off Visual Basic macros (such as the Melissa virus) by having Office 2000 check their digital signatures.

One of the nicest of the new features is that in most cases, Office 2000's native-format files are compatible with - and more compact than - Office 97's. This convenience enables your co-workers to open Office 2000 native-format files even if they haven't upgraded to the new suite. And if your hard disk labours under a load of large PowerPoint presentations or Access databases, upgrading to Office 2000 and opening and saving those files in the native format could free up megabytes of disk space.

Note to users of WordPerfect and Word Pro: though you might be able to work with Word 97 files, our tests indicate you will have difficulties opening documents that were created in Word 2000. And some spreadsheeters are out of luck as well: Quattro Pro is able to handle the new Excel 2000 format with some success, but 1-2-3 is not.

Finally, despite all its new bells and whistles, Office 2000 runs no slower than Office 97. Most tasks - including launching applications, opening and saving files, inserting graphics and moving columns - take approximately the same amount of time in the new suite as they did in the old one.

Polyglot not. This rosy picture turns dark and gloomy when you attempt to save Office documents as Web pages.

To test Office 2000 file compatibility, we created HTML documents in three applications - Word 2000, Excel 2000, and PowerPoint 2000. Then we tried to open those files in Office 97, in competing office suites, and in various browsers and HTML editors.

If you save large or complex Office 2000 documents (in other words, files with macros, graphics, or any kind of complex formatting) as .htm files and then open them in a non-Microsoft browser, in an HTML editor, in a competing office suite, or even in Office 97, you will often lose that formatting. Sometimes you will get nothing but gobbledygook.

For example, when we saved one .htm file from Word 2000 and then tried to open it in Netscape Navigator 4.51, we found headlines broken up one word to a line and images that ran over the text. When we tried to open the same file in SoftQuad's HotMetal Pro HTML editor, the program warned us of "problems" in the HTML; its HTML wizard then reported that the document was full of "unrecognised" HTML code. When we tried to open an HTML PowerPoint presentation, Navigator could only display digital junk.

Not just HTML. Why did this happen? The current Hypertext Markup Language 4.0 spec, to which most current browsers and HTML editors adhere, isn't equipped to preserve complex Office documents with perfect fidelity. Consequently, when it saves documents as Web pages, Office supplements standard HTML with some nonstandard technologies: XML (Extended Markup Language) handles macros and other interactive elements, while VML (Vector Markup Language) preserves some graphics. Because many editors and browsers don't yet support either XML or VML, they aren't fully compatible with Office's .htm files.

Office 2000's nonstandard implementation of HTML could also make collaboration more difficult. Microsoft has created a hybrid form of HTML that only Office 2000 users can share fully - and even then, they could run into trouble.

Here's why: suppose you create an .htm document in Microsoft Word. Office 2000 embeds a special tag in the file's source code, identifying the file to Office and to Windows Explorer as a Word document. But should one of your collaborators subsequently open and save that same file in FrontPage, it becomes a plain Web page - losing all of its Wordiness in the process, including the special tag that identifies the document's original application.

After that point, if a third user comes along and wants to open the file, he or she will have no clue about which application to use, potentially leading to all sorts of confusion.

Fat and slow. This hybrid form of HTML can also be sluggish. Excel 2000 slows down substantially when working with HTML. Saving a 5MB spreadsheet in the program's native .xls format took a little under four seconds. But saving that very same spreadsheet as HTML caused the file to balloon to a whopping 20MB, and the process took almost 40 seconds.

Other Office 2000 applications are better behaved: Word 2000 files that we saved as Web pages turned out smaller than the native .doc files, and PowerPoint presentations enlarged only slightly when saved in .htm format.

The bottom line: although Office 2000 has a number of nifty new features to recommend it, the implementation of .htm as a common file format is not one of them.

Of course, the new suite's nonstandard HTML will not be a problem if you avoid it, sticking instead with each application's native document formats (if your collaborators have the new suite) or a standard document format like .rtf (if they don't).

Nor will it be a problem if you are posting files to an intranet and you're sure that absolutely everyone in the office is using Internet Explorer 5.

But if you want to create Web pages for all the world to read, or if you want to collaborate with a variety of users using .htm as a common file format, Office 2000 is not the right tool for the job.

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