Software Review: Microsoft Office 2004 Professional, Page 1

The latest version of Microsoft’s venerable Office suite for the Macintosh does a better job of delivering elegant functionality than any release since the days of Word 5.1. Is it enough to enable Mac OS X-based practitioners to interoperate seamlessly in a Windows-dominated world? And is the full Office suite necessary for the typical mental health professional in private practice?

The De Facto Standard of Office Suites

Once upon a time, Microsoft was playing catch-up with products like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 on the PC platform, and Office component applications like Word and Excel demonstrated real leadership only on the Macintosh platform, where the products were originally created. But by the time Windows 95 appeared, Microsoft had begun devoting huge effort to developing Office for the PC, and it soon became apparent that the PC version of the suite would be taking priority. After moving swiftly to dominate the PC market with Office, development on the Mac platform started catching up once again, and now the two products leapfrog one another via offset release cycles — with the latest features being introduced alternately in the Mac or the PC versions. The Microsoft Office suite is now the de facto standard on both platforms.

With Microsoft’s next PC-based release (Office 12) still at least many months away, the Macintosh version — Microsoft Office 2004 — is currently the ‘latest and greatest’, but even now it is not necessarily at full feature parity with its Windows sibling. One question for Mac OS X-based practitioners is simply this: is Office 2004 enough to enable seamless interoperation with the world of Windows?

In my view, the answer is an unreserved yes: Microsoft has done a better job with this release than any other for more than a decade, since the good old days of applications like Word 5.1. However, the occasional ‘gotcha’ does remain, including one problem with an intermediate update to the software that can leave you with a completely non-functional installation.

A second question is whether a full suite like Microsoft Office is still necessary for the typical mental health professional in private practice — particularly given the upsurge in popularity of open source alternatives. I think the answer to this question is less straightforward, and it depends to a significant degree on how much you need to exchange documents with other professionals, whether you regularly publish articles in print, and whether you frequenty give conference presentations. In my case, I think the full suite is probably not strictly necessary, but it certainly makes life — and running a business — a great deal easier.

What’s Included?

First things first. Microsoft Office is available in several flavours, and at several price points; we reviewed the full Microsoft Office 2004 Professional, which is distinguished primarily by its inclusion of Virtual PC. The full list of Office applications includes:

  • Word (word processing)
  • Excel (spreadsheet)
  • Entourage (email, calendar)
  • PowerPoint (presentations)
  • Virtual PC (PC emulation)
  • MSN Messenger (messaging)

This review will cover all except the last, which is available separately for free and is not a crucial component of the Office suite.

Compatibility Made Easy

Office compatibility check.

Automatic compatibility checking.

As I mentioned above, one of the main questions for anyone working on the Macintosh platform is how easily they can interoperate with colleagues or clients using the dominant Windows platform. For several years, compatibility problems between the two platforms have been shrinking — in part because of direct efforts by both Apple and Microsoft to incorporate cross-platform capabilities into their respective operating systems, and in part because of the growing influence of open standards and of the world wide web. For example, it now makes very little difference whether one uses a Mac or a PC to browse the web, interact with XML data, write email, etc. And when communicating on a LAN, both Windows XP and Mac OS X work together very effectively.

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But what happens when a colleague sends you a PowerPoint presentation, or a client wants to send you emails as Word attachments? And if you develop your own practice website, what happens when you develop pages on the Mac — will they displya properly on PCs?

With this latest iteration of its Office suite, Microsoft has made it easier than ever before to accommodate documents created under Windows, as well as to check whether documents created on the Mac will be fully supported by the older version of Office currently running on Windows. A new automated compatibility checking tool will do the job for you, going through a document and flagging anything that could create a problem for Windows users — along with recommended solutions.

Going the other direction, from Windows to the Mac, I’ve tried opening several old documents created by older Office applications and have so far found the process relatively seamless. A few minor problems I encountered when opening PC-created documents with the previous Mac version (called ‘v.X’) seem to have disappeared altogether. I occasionally receive Word or RTF attachments from my online counselling clients, and all these have opened without a hitch.

Office Applications: Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word

Considered by many to be the centrepiece of the Microsoft Office suite, Word is a very mature piece of software in which I wouldn’t really expect to see any Earth-shattering improvements.

Reference panel with dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia links.

Reference panel.

Having said that, Word 2004 does introduce a new ‘Notebook’ layout view, intended to act as a virtual notebook for taking notes, attaching audio annotations, and flag items for follow-up via the Project Center, a part of Entourage. I personally don’t find the function particularly useful: I don’t believe Word is particularly well suited for this type of task in the first place. (If I am really taking notes, for example, I am usually working extremely quickly, struggling to keep up with something that is being spoken in real time, and I certainly do not have time to wander off and flag a task for myself to complete by some specified date.)

A more significant improvement comes with Word’s tracking of changes within a document. If you’ve ever tried to collaborate on a document using Word’s change tracking feature, you’ll know how functional yet primitive the feature has been. This revision introduces major advances in change tracking and even offers some degree of integration with MSN Messenger.

Finally, Word also incorporates a reference tool panel which offers a nice improvement over the old dictionary and thesaurus functions — plus a one-click direct link to the online Encarta encyclopedia. Microsoft has also integrated MSN internet search into the panel, although I believe most web users would agree that Microsoft is some distance behind search leaders Google and Yahoo in terms of search quality.

Overall, my personal experience of Microsoft Word has been extremely positive. I wrote my first book primarily in Word 6, and it was the bane of my existence. Compared with Word 5.1 or even Word 4, in which I also wrote hundreds of pages, Word 6 was a bug-ridden resource hog that regularly crashed and mangled my documents. As a result of that anxiety-ridden experience, I feel more critical and hyper-watchful of Word than of almost any other application. With Word 2004, I once again feel like I can relax a bit with my documents and trust that Microsoft has managed to get it right this time!

(Having said that, during several months of testing, I did experience one Word crash while manipulating tables. As the application went down, it offered me the option of recovering my document and restarting Word, but this turned out to be a bad joke: the application restarted just fine, but my ‘recovered’ document was nowhere to be found. I wound up going back to the most recently saved version, losing 20-30 minutes of work.)

Office Applications: Excel

Microsoft Excel

Many of those for whom Word is not the centre of the office suite universe probably place that honour squarely on the shoulders of Excel, the suite’s spreadsheet application. Like Word, Excel features a new viewing mode: page layout view, like its namesake in its word processing sibling, enables you to see just how a document will look once its printed. Back in the dark ages, a spreadsheet was just a spreadsheet, and I don’t imagine too many people spent a great deal of time worrying about how their spreadsheets looked on paper. These days, however, many users create visually sophisticated documents using spreadsheets, and for those who take advantage of such capabilities, the new page layout view is no doubt a very welcome evolution.

Some less significant improvements in charting capability and formula editing round out the new features in this application which, like Word, is already a very mature product.

Office Applications: Entourage

Microsoft Entourage

As a former long-time user of Eudora, the email application now owned by Qualcomm, I originally felt pretty skeptical about using an application which stores all its data in one single database, as Entourage does: if anything happens to that database, everything could be lost. (By contrast, an application such as Eudora stores data in several different files, and corruption in one typically has no effect on the usability of others.)

However, in my experience, Entourage has proven to be extremely capable, and it includes automatic tools for fixing certain problems which might arise in the database. In addition, the use of a single database makes it possible for Entourage to accomplish handy little tricks like storing links between particular messages, automatically retrieving the original message when you’re viewing the reply to a message, keeping track of documents related to a given message, or remembering when you removed a message attachment. For those particularly concerned about the fragility of the monolithic Entourage database, it may be helpful to make use of an apparently little-known tip: any given mailbox can simply be dragged to the Macintosh desktop, creating an instant backup in the standard ‘mbox’ format usable by virtually any email client.

Project center wizard.

Project Center wizard.

Microsoft’s headline improvement for Entourage 2004 is the Project Center, which acts as a central consolidated repository for a project’s emails, contacts, meetings, documents, and more. It is essentially a project-centric view of data that would otherwise be viewed by type; i.e., you can choose to see all your emails in one place and all your meetings in another place, or you can choose to see only those emails and meetings connected with a particular project in another place. Integration with Word and the Office-wide scrapbook means that project data are not limited just to information stored within Entourage itself. A new project can be set up with the Project Center wizard in just a few clicks.

The junk email protection built into Entourage is significantly improved, and if you don’t run server-level spam protection, the junk filter can be a big timesaver. I experience several false positives each month, even on the ‘low’ setting, so it pays to check your junk email folder every so often — just in case.

Office Applications: PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint

If you don’t produce presentations for conferences or meetings, you will probably have approximately zero use for Microsoft PowerPoint. However, if you do, I believe there’s nothing that compares to it in terms of overall capability.

In my previous professional life as a researcher and later as a senior manager in a large technology company, I travelled around the world giving conference and seminar presentations, and I regularly used PowerPoint both on the road and back at ‘home’ with colleagues. Opening some of those old presentations now, I immediately notice two things:

  1. Everything appears to open flawlessly, and
  2. the new ‘Presenter Tools’.

The first means that backward compatibility is very good, while the second is — well, exceedingly cool! The ‘Presenter Tools’, new to PowerPoint 2004, enable the presenter to see one view on his or her own screen, while the audience sees a different view on a second screen. I can see upcoming slides, a running clock, and any additional notes on my screen, while the audience sees the current slide only. Someone was really paying attention to how good presenters use PowerPoint, and this new feature is a great improvement for the occasions when you may be plugging a laptop into a projector or other display device.

Office Applications: Virtual PC

Microsoft Virtual PC

If you have the hardware horsepower to support it, Virtual PC provides a basic Windows XP machine in software emulation. Testing the application on a dual-processor 2 GHz G5, Windows XP Professional ran slowly but acceptably for the very basic tasks I threw at it. Since the emulator does not support any type of hardware-accelerated graphics, Virtual PC is completely unsuitable for anything particularly graphics-intensive, and even displaying some of the graphical niceties of Windows XP turns it into a pretty pokey beast. If you need the power of a real PC, and you don’t mind additional physical clutter on your desktop, you would probably be much better off with a cheap PC and either a second monitor or a KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) switch to control it.

However, for simple tasks where you occasionally need a PC and can do without high performance, Virtual PC comes in awfully handy. In my case, I create quite a large amount of web content on a Macintosh, but the peculiarities of the Windows version of Internet Explorer mean that I often can’t be sure that a page will display in the way that I intend for Internet Explorer users. My solution had always been to stand up and walk to another room to test pages on a networked PC, but I’ve found it vastly more convenient simply to have Virtual PC running on my Mac, and to switch to the PC environment to view results with Internet Explorer. If you maintain your own practice website on a Mac, but you need to test on Internet Explorer for Windows, Virtual PC may be able to save you a tremendous amount of grief. (Of course, it won’t actually make Internet Explorer any better, but that’s another story…)

If you do run Virtual PC, just remember that you are running a full installation of Microsoft Windows — with all its inherent security limitations and vulnerabilities. You’ll need to take steps to safeguard the security of your virtual machine if you wander out onto the internet with it.

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