After spending some time with Office 97, I'm convinced Microsoft finally has us where they want us. What I mean is, with Office 97, they've left us very few reasons to ever leave the Microsoft-controlled environment. Why? Because that environment--complete with a surprisingly unobtrusive cartoon character called the "Answer Wizard"--is about as pleasant and functional as a software program can be.
Microsoft has added a new configuration to the Office 97 family--the Small Business Edition. Considering how fast small businesses, and particularly the homebased segment--are growing, it's no big surprise that Microsoft is targeting small-business users with its most popular software program. What is somewhat surprising, however, is how Microsoft adapted Office 97 to appeal to small-business users.
After numerous focus groups and much BODYing, Microsoft determined that small-business users don't require two of the key Office Professional components: Microsoft Access (database) and PowerPoint (for presentations). That left Word 97, Excel 97 and Outlook 97, the new Microsoft information manager. To make the product more appealing to small-business users, Microsoft added Publisher 97 (desktop publishing), Automap Streets Plus (street-level mapping), and Small Business Financial Manager 97. The result is an extremely interesting and easy-to-use suite of products. (Macintosh and Windows 3.1 users are out of luck when it comes to Office 97--this is a Windows 95/NT product only.)
Before reading on, you should know that the Office 97 Small Business Edition is going to eat up a lot of space on your hard drive--more than 100MB. Of course, if you're already an Office user, that number may not be daunting.
Because this program won't be shipping until the time this magazine reaches you, I reviewed a beta version. To my surprise, I didn't encounter any bugs. The upgrade program for Office 97 is very liberal, and most users will qualify for the $249 upgrade price rather than the $499 full price.
The Outlook Is Good
Microsoft Office is already the most popular suite on the market--and for good reason. This program has always made it easy for users to share information between modules: for instance, to embed a spreadsheet into a Word document and be assured that as the spreadsheet gets updated, so will the Word document.
All this and more holds true for Office 97. That's because of Outlook 97 (below), a new desktop information manager that brings even more integration to the Office suite. Outlook 97 combines the functionality of an e-mail application and contact manager (address book, appointments and the like) with a document manager. Users can do all their work directly from Outlook, simplifying the process of organizing data, events and even people.
I found the Journal a particularly interesting feature. Here Outlook keeps track of all the activities you've performed in Office applications, letting you track your daily activities and open current files and e-mail messages directly from Outlook. If you rely on your calendar, you'll appreciate Outlook's simple but comprehensive calendaring function. Here you can plan recurring meetings from now until forever and also organize daily tasks.
Additionally, Outlook provides much of the Internet functionality in Office 97, including exchanging messages with associates via e-mail or internal mail. What's nice is that contact information listed in Outlook includes space for e-mail and Web site addresses. Sending messages is a one-click procedure, as is visiting a contact's Web page. Without any reconfiguration, Outlook was able to dial up my Internet service provider and download my e-mail messages. Word fans will love WordMail, a capability that lets you use the features and formatting of Word 97 for e-mail messages.
Usability Is Key
Readers of this column know if a program isn't user-friendly, it's not going to receive high marks. As an existing Office user, I may be biased, but, in my opinion, Office 97 is probably the most user-friendly program there is. Of course, Microsoft only had to improve on a good thing, and the developers had plenty of user feedback to make sure they got it right. But Microsoft went beyond the call of duty to improve this program to ensure its top spot in the category.
First, there's the Office Assistant--an animated character (you can choose from nine; I liked Scribble the cat) that resides in a small box outside your work area. The Office Assistant helps users get through the basic tasks of Office 97 and unobtrusively prompts you to learn more about certain functions.
There's also something called IntelliSense that consists of helpful tools that make it easier to work. For example, AutoText guesses what you're about to type--such as a month, salutation or any word you choose to add to the AutoText dictionary--and fills in the rest of the word when you hit Enter. There's also an improved AutoCorrect for fixing typos as you work.
A new Document Map view in Word is great for people who type large documents and need an easy way to navigate them. The Document Map uses a split screen and displays an outline of the document on the left side, letting users click on subheads to navigate through the document.
If you've ever struggled with laying out a table in Word, you'll love the way tables work now--just draw them to the size you want. No more guessing how to add a row or column.
There are also plenty of Wizards in Office 97, which make it easier to work by pre-formatting pages, such as letters and fax cover sheets in Word and publication templates in Publisher.
Why Didnt I Think Of That?
One extremely handy addition to the toolbar is a highlighter pen. Working like a traditional highlighter pen, this tool lets you highlight text in whatever color you deem appropriate. Because it works in every Office product, you can send and receive documents and e-mail messages with certain phrases highlighted, making it easy to exchange ideas and text changes.
An even more exciting "Why didn't they think of that sooner" product is not even directly related to Office 97, although it's being included with all versions: It's a piece of hardware, the new IntelliMouse. Who would have thought a mouse could be awesome? But the IntelliMouse is.
This new device, which hit retail shelves long before Office 97 and is already being supported by numerous software developers, makes pointing and clicking easier than ever. A wheel located on top of the mouse makes scrolling around a screen incredibly efficient, too--you just roll it with an index finger or hold it down and move the mouse to view other areas of the screen. No more clunky scroll bars to navigate! One software program that benefits immensely from the IntelliMouse is Streets Plus because users can easily scroll around large images of maps.
But Wait! Theres More!
Because Streets Plus (right) is unique to the Small Business Edition, a closer look is merited. Microsoft purchased this program from a company called AutoMap. Though I haven't seen an AutoMap program in some time, I was extremely impressed with this version (which is also available as a stand-alone program). Streets Plus is pretty much what it sounds like--maps of highways, streets and roads to help users get around their world a little easier.
Using Streets Plus is fairly intuitive. You can hone in on an address, route your trip, calculate the mileage, zoom in or out to see the area surrounding the location and so on. There's also a database where you search for "Points of Interest"--restaurants, museums, lodging, bed and breakfasts, and the like. The only drawback is Streets Plus doesn't include any reviews of the facilities it lists or give any insight into the cities you may be visiting. Streets Plus relies on the Web for that. Click on Web links, and you can search for cities or states and be linked directly to pages that contain pertinent links to sites of interest.
Because the Internet is Microsoft's next big frontier, Office 97 has plenty of Internet capabilities. Type in a Web site address in any of the Office 97 programs, like www. entrepreneurmag. com; the programs recognize the Web address format and will convert it into a live hyperlink that, when clicked on, opens your Web browser of choice and goes to the site.
Another great Web feature is the ability to save files in HTML format. This means virtually any Office 97 document (Word, Excel, etc.) can be published on the Web. Word even has a built-in Web Page Wizard for designing professional-looking Web pages.
Unfortunately, the Small Business Financial Manager wasn't available in time to be included in this review. According to Microsoft, this module will help small-business owners better understand their company's financial state. You will be able to import data from popular accounting packages, such as QuickBooks, and create reports that can be customized to analyze all your financial data.
New Look And Feel
With all these new features comes an entire face lift. Office users will still recognize the interface. Lots of the pull-down menus are the same, and the toolbars at the top of the screen have the same functionality--and then some. But a closer look will reveal that these new Command Bars are consistent across the entire line of Office 97 components (with one exception: Publisher 97). That means users will see the same icons in every application, making computer work easier than ever.
Microsoft has done it again. They've created a program users will want to upgrade to. (Plus they've developed a new Microsoft mouse that makes it easier to work.) Though you can live without Office 97, you'll wonder how you ever did.
Microsoft Office 97
Small Business Edition
Smart Business System: Two new products in the Smart Business System family should help small-business owners run and grow their companies. By providing strategies for motivating your staff, Smart Manager helps you maximize employee efficiency, increase morale and decrease turnover. Smart Marketing guides users in maximizing sales by providing sales analyses and offering information on direct mail, market research and other sales tools. For more information on these and other American Institute for Financial Research products, call (800) 578-9000.
CyberViewer: Cruising the Web can be confusing. A site you visited moments before can suddenly be hard to find. That's why there's CyberViewer, a free utility that can be added to Netscape Navigator (Macintosh only), which displays pages a user has accessed as a graphical thumbnail. The thumbnails can be put in your bookmark folder for easy retrieval. Visit (http://www.extensis.com/products/CyberViewer/).
American Institute for Financial Research, 900 Perimeter Park, Ste. G, Morrisville, NC 27560, (http://www.smartonline.com);
Extensis Corp., 55 S.W. Yamhill, 4th Fl., Portland, OR 97204, (503) 274-2020;
Microsoft Corp., 1 Microsoft Wy., Redmond, WA 98052-6399, (206) 882-8080;
Cassandra Cavanah is a former executive editor of PC Laptop magazine and has reported on the computer industry for eight years.