Microsoft office 2000 is here--in spirit. True, the upgrade to the 800-pound gorilla of office suites won't ship until the second quarter of this year. But in the meantime, Microsoft's site is hawking a beta version it calls a "Preview." Available now, nearly feature complete, and surprisingly stable, the Preview provides a solid picture of what to expect in the final version.
If you want to create content for Web sites or a corporate Intranet, Office 2000 looks like a winner--it's brimming with new Internet features. But mostly, this upgrade focuses on sensible tweaks to existing toolsEven experienced Office users may need to spend time adjusting to alterations in the interface. Some changes are sure to be crowd-pleasers. For instance, the clipboard can finally hold more than one item. It now tracks up to 12 elements, letting you paste them selectively.
In contrast, other "improvements" are questionable. To reduce on-screen clutter, Microsoft has redesigned the menu system so that menus show a shortened list of commands. If the command you're looking for isn't listed in a menu, you have to hover the mouse pointer over the menu for a moment, whereupon it will expand to show all the commands.
Microsoft has greatly improved Office 2000's Web features. Word, for instance, is now a considerably more advanced HTML editor: It handles frame layouts with ease and has simpler tools for embedding hyperlinks. Excel's Web Query feature, which was tricky to use in Excel 97, now lets you easily grab tabular data from a Web site, plunk it into a spreadsheet, and then tell the program to refresh it automatically with new data whenever the Web site changes. Likewise, PowerPoint has new Internet tools, including the ability to broadcast a slide show over the Web.
Core apps can now open and save HTML documents as if they were native files. So, if you're creating Web pages, you can opt to work in HTML exclusively, rather than juggle multiple versions of documents. PowerPoint rendered pages that could be displayed only by Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher.
Most of Office's native file formats remain unchanged. Only Access has a new file format, and it can export databases for use in earlier versions of the app. That means you can still share most files with users of Office 97, Lotus SmartSuite, or Corel's WordPerfect Suite unless you use the new HTML formats.
Beyond the Web features, Microsoft has mostly enhanced existing features in apps as opposed to adding radically new ones. Word's on-the-fly spelling checker, already invaluable, now fixes more typos automatically.
Microsoft has also added some collaborative tools. Documents can now include threaded discussions that let co-workers comment on a work in progress. You can also embed snippets of interactive data, such as Excel PivotTables, into a Web page, so your colleagues can manipulate the tables in their Web browsers.
These features show potential, but some will work only in organisations that standardise on Microsoft products. For example, Excel PivotTables look fine in Internet Explorer, but because they rely on ActiveX technology, Netscape Navigator users won't see them at all.
Microsoft office isn't one product: It's a series of packages, each encompassing multiple programs. In Office 2000, Microsoft has shuffled the line-up and added a version called Premium to the existing Standard, Small Business, Professional, and Developer editions.
The company's popular Publisher desktop-publishing program is now part of every Office version except Standard. This is great if you create graphically rich documents; the program is packed with easy-to-use wizards for designing brochures, Web pages, and so on.