New Office a good fit for some businesses

June 14, 1999|By Sean Gallagher | Sean Gallagher,Special to the Sun

Microsoft has just released Office 2000, the latest version of its "personal productivity suite." That means new versions of virtually all of Microsoft's desktop software packages, along with all sorts of new implications for the businesses that rely on them.

So, what's the point? Why should any of us shell out $200 to $450 (depending on the version and rebate) to upgrade our desktop software, other than to help Bill Gates buy baby toys for his new kid?

The answer is, "It depends" -- on your needs, your company's needs, your pocketbook, whether you're one of those people who rushes to buy the latest and greatest.

Office 2000 comes in four basic flavors -- Standard, Small Business, Professional, and Premium. The Standard package includes Word 2000 (the latest version of Microsoft's venerable word processor), Excel 2000 (the spreadsheet and number cruncher), Outlook 2000 (electronic mail, a calendar and a contact manager) and PowerPoint 2000 (for presentations), plus Internet Explorer 5.0, Microsoft's latest Web browser.

In more expensive editions, features are piled on gradually, with the Premium edition boasting eight applications.

If you run a small business and share information among several computers, some powerful new features could make Office 2000 a "must have" upgrade. The suite's Small Business Edition includes tools to help run a growing business, and its collaboration elements may be all the "groupware" that small and medium-sized companies need. The Premium Edition boasts Web and desktop publishing tools that can help create the marketing machine you need to make your business grow.

If you have your own Web site and use the Internet heavily, Office 2000 can make it easier to create and post information to the Web. Office 2000 Premium Edition comes with Microsoft's PhotoDraw 2000 graphics tool and FrontPage Web site manager, but remember that all the other programs in the Office suite can save information to Web format. Small Web sites -- especially those on a company's local intranet -- may need nothing more than the Office tools.

The new release includes scores of tweaks, improvements and fixes to the old Office programs, along with better installation and customization options.

If you're happy with the current set of word processing, spreadsheet, and other desktop applications on your home PC, there's no need to shell out money right now unless your business is upgrading and you want to stay in tune with the folks at the office.

You don't have to worry much about compatibility with others using Office 2000 if you decide not to upgrade. Microsoft learned its lesson with Office 97, which outraged millions of users by employing file formats that were incompatible with previous versions.

Except for Access databases, file formats for the major applications in Office 2000 have remained the same, so you can easily open most files with Office 97 programs and bring them back into Office 2000 without losing formatting or data. However, Microsoft has acknowledged some forrmatting incompatibilities between Office 2000 for Windows and the most recent Macintosh release of the Office suite.

One reason many people feel compelled to upgrade is the year 2000. There aren't any fatal Y2K bugs in Office 97, but there are a few "gotchas." Excel 97 and Access 97 have potential date problems, and while most of them can be fixed by re-entering or reformatting existing files, there are enough Y2K issues lurking in those two programs to make Office 2000 an attractive alternative.

Many features in Office 2000 are holdovers, including a spell checker that recognizes common mistakes and fixes them as you type.

New tweaks exist as well. Office 2000 applications have a "collect and paste" function that allows users to copy multiple snippets of text or information to a clipboard space and then select which to paste later. Some old Office hands may find this more confusing than helpful, though.

Then there's the Office Assistant. Not the entry-level clerical worker who picks up your phone calls -- we're talking about the animated on-screen helper that provides assistance based on which application you're using and what you're doing with it.

Many experienced users find Microsoft's cute little animated paper clip, cat, dog, claymation Einstein and other "Assistants" more annoying than helpful. Office 2000 offers those beleaguered souls good news -- Assistants can be turned off once and never be seen again (at least until they're summoned to return). The usefulness of the Assistants has increased, though.

If you do upgrade to (or buy your first version of) Office 2000, installation and maintenance will go a bit easier than with previous versions. The new installation program makes its applications "self-repairing" -- they can tell when they've been damaged and automatically try to reinstall broken pieces.

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