The original Microsoft Word 1.0 had 100 commands. Microsoft Word 2003 has more than 1,500. With Office 2007, Microsoft set out not just to create another version filled with new features but a version with features people can more easily find and use.
Microsoft focused on improvements in four main areas: how people use Office; collaboration; processes and content management; and business insight. Other improvements include new security and file formats and upgrades to the products that make up Office, such as Word, Excel and Access. Here's an overview of the improvements in the four main areas mentioned:
1. Getting the most out of Office. One of the biggest changes in Office 2007 is that instead of menus and toolbars, you'll find the Ribbon. Rather than being a static menu, the Ribbon only displays the commands relevant to each task in the particular Office application you're using. Word, for example, has tabs for inserting text and images, page layout, mailings and reviewing documents. Excel, on the other hand, has tabs for formulas, page layout and inserting object such as charts and graphs.
Certain commands are only relevant when you're editing objects of a particular type. These tabs only appear when they're needed and disappear when they're not.
Galleries are another improvement in Office. Instead of showing you a rather complex dialog box, they give you a set of simple formatting choices to choose from.
Searching has vastly improved in Outlook 2007 and OneNote 2007 by automatically indexing content as it's created. So instead of drumming your fingers as you wait for search results, the results are instant.
2. Working together. Instead of managing your communications in different programs, Outlook 2007 includes e-mail, instant messages, RSS feeds and SMS messages in one place. If you're using Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 with Outlook 2007, enhanced unified messaging allows you to access e-mail, voice mail and faxes in your typical manner, as well as through Microsoft Outlook. In other words, you can listen to a voice mail message, take notes and then forward that message to someone else through an interface.
Windows SharePoint Services is Microsoft's platform for group collaboration, which includes version controls, document check-in and check-out, document workflow and other features. SharePoint 2007 has been upgraded to enhance these features.
If you find you need the spontaneity of decentralized--or virtual--collaboration, Office 2007 includes better support for Groove 2007. Groove helps you create virtual workgroups to bring people together for collaborative work. Every project doesn't just contain spreadsheets or multi-media documents; many contain a variety of data types and still need team collaboration. What's nice about Groove is that it was designed to optimize decentralization with presence and synchronization built in.
3. Processes and content management. For small businesses needing to manage a large flow of documents, Office's Enterprise Content Management features will be welcome. ECM's foundation is SharePoint Server, which includes web content management, records management, document management and collaboration, and search and workflow capabilities.
A big part of document management is being able to find files, and one of the key components of ECM is helping you do so quickly. Office SharePoint Server 2007's search capabilities have been greatly improved.
This is only a brief overview of Office 2007's workflow and content management capabilities. You'll find many new and enhanced features for records management, collaboration and other areas.
4. Business insight. Being able to act on the information contained in the spreadsheets, documents, databases, presentations, websites, e-mail RSS feeds, and audio and video files is what business is about. Having 400 data files is only useful if you can pull from these documents the information that's important to your business.
Data Connection Libraries make it easier for end users to import external data directly into a spreadsheet without having to know the name of the source. You'll need to set up the databases it'll allow access to, but once this is done users can link to specific libraries on their own with no password.
If your business uses Microsoft Office extensively and creates and manages documents in Office applications, upgrading to Office 2007 could significantly enhance your productivity. But if your business isn't a "knowledge business" and doesn't create or use a lot of data other than e-mail and basic accounting information, Office 2007 probably offers more than you'll ever need. You'll do fine upgrading organically--getting the new Office when you buy a new computer or upgrade your software in its normal life cycle.
But keep in mind that it's always good to try new things. I know many businesses that are doing things very inefficiently and don't know how much technology can help them. If you find that documents you created three weeks ago frequently get lost, you might want to think about upgrading to Office 2007.
Depending on your specific needs, you might want to also consider working with products other than Microsoft Office. WebEx WebOffice, Google Apps, HyperOffice and OpenOffice are a few examples of viable alternatives.
Ramon Ray is Entrepreneur.com's "Tech Basics" columnist and editor of Smallbiztechnology.com. He's the author ofTechnology Solutions for Growing Businesses and currently serves on the board of directors and the technology committee for the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.