Talking Shop: A first look at Microsoft Office XP

Read up on the features available in Office XP and see if your systems are ready.

High XPectations: Does Microsoft meet them with the latest version of its ever-XPanding Office Suite? Office XP has been released to manufacturing and will soon be available to the public; those who want to test-drive the software before making a major investment in the upgrade can order a 30-day trial version at Microsoft’s Office Web site.

A corporate preview version has been available for some time, and in working with it, I have been impressed with some of the subtle yet important improvements Microsoft has made to its venerable Office applications. In this Daily Drill Down, I will provide an overview of what you can expect to find in the new Office: the good, the bad, and the have-yet-to-make-up-my-mind new features.

Are your systems XP ready?
Microsoft says XP stands for “Xperience.” Installing a new software package, especially a large and complex one, is often a memorable experience. It can be fun, frustrating, or a combination of the two. In the case of Office XP, the third option definitely applies, although I must admit that the fun outweighs the frustration—if you start out with the “right” system. (See the next section for minimum system requirements.)

Like its predecessors, Office XP will come in several packages, depending on which applications you want. These will include Standard, Professional, Professional Special Edition, and Developer Edition. (There will also be a Small Business Edition and a Professional with Publisher Edition, which will be available preinstalled with new computers.) The XP applications include:
  • Outlook 2002
  • Word 2002
  • PowerPoint 2002
  • Excel 2002
  • Access 2002
  • FrontPage 2002

Click here for more information on which applications are included in each package, as well as expected pricing models.

To say Office XP is picky in terms of system requirements is an understatement. Microsoft devotes a full page to the topic at their official Office Web site. The hardware requirements are reasonable, but check carefully to see that you have the correct service packs for your operating system and the correct versions of Internet Explorer, and that you meet the special requirements for using specific features (such as speech recognition).

According to the minimum requirements page, Office XP only runs on Windows 98/98SE, NT, Windows 2000, and Me. If you’re still running Windows 95, forget it.

As you might have guessed, Office XP does run on the still-in-beta Windows XP operating system; I have been pleased with the performance of my XP Office Beta running on my XP operating system Beta.

An average of 245 MB of hard disk space is required (at least 115 MB of which must be on the partition to which the operating system is installed). Read the fine print, though. You’ll find that various circumstances and installation of various optional features will increase the amount of space needed. For example, if you want to install additional language interfaces, you’ll need 50 MB for each.

What’s new at the Office?
If you’re expecting a drastically changed interface, you’ll probably be disappointed. At first glance, the “look” of Office XP is not much different from Office 2000. As you begin to use it, though, you’ll see that there are many subtle changes that make familiar tasks easier.

Task panes
An example is the new task pane feature. Each Office XP application has associated task panes that appear on the right side of the application window and contain information such as the contents of the clipboard or document formatting options (See Figure A).

Figure A
The task pane can be used to display the contents of the clipboard.

This greatly improves the functionality of the clipboard, making it easy to cut and paste text and objects precisely within a document or presentation. Up to 24 pieces of information can be stored on the clipboard. The Search function is also displayed in a task pane, allowing you to search for text in a document or for files or folders without leaving the document (see Figure B).

Figure B
Use the Search task pane to search for text, files, or folders without leaving the document.

Help for the Help features
You’ll also note in the figures that there is a new field in the menu bar: a drop-down box labeled Type A Question For Help. You can now type in a Help question without having to launch the assistant or the Answer Wizard.

High on the wish list of many Office 2000 users was getting rid of the Office Assistant (a.k.a. Clippit the dancing, singing, and annoying paperclip). Many will be happy to hear that in Office XP, the assistant is hidden by default. All in all, the “look” of Office applications remains essentially the same, although the splash screens have a different, simpler look.

Playing it smart with Smart Tags
Smart Tags are new to Office XP. They are labels for certain types of data recognized by Office programs and are used to perform some task or action that the user would otherwise have to open another program to accomplish. Smart Tags appear as buttons within a document and are shared across Office applications.

How Smart Tags work
Smart Tags have different actions associated with them, depending on the data type. For example, if you type text that is recognized by Word 2002 as a person’s name, a tag will appear by the typed text (see Figure C).

Figure C
One of the most promising new features in Office XP is called Smart Tags.

When you click on the Smart Tag marker, you’ll see a list of options indicating actions that you can perform based on the data type. In the case of data recognized as a person’s name, you can choose to send mail, schedule a meeting, open the person’s Contact file, add the person to your Contacts list, or insert an address, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
You can use Smart Tags to perform actions that once required opening another program.

Enabling and configuring Smart Tags
Smart Tags can be turned on or off, and you can select the data types to recognize by clicking on Tools | AutoCorrect Options | Smart Tags in Word or Excel.

Note that even if you turn off Smart Tags, they may still show up in your documents if you have copied text containing a tag from a document that was created or opened on another computer. In this case, you can remove the tags from the document using the Remove Smart Tags button on the Smart Tags property sheet in AutoCorrect Options.

The data types recognized by Office XP by default are shown in Figure E.

Figure E
You can select the types of data to be recognized and marked by Smart Tags.

The entire concept of Smart Tags may sound suspiciously familiar to you if you’ve worked with XML. In fact, you can save Smart Tags as XML properties in Web pages. You can also save them in e-mail messages, and the recipient of the message can then use them, provided the recipient is using Outlook 2002.

Microsoft, as well as third-party vendors, can develop new Smart Tags actions. You can access Microsoft’s Web page with additional tags by clicking the More Smart Tags button on the Smart Tags property sheet shown above.

Working together: Improved collaboration features
The collaboration features have made Office a favorite tool for writers and editors, as well as corporate teams in which many people work together to create reports, presentations, and other documents. Office XP improves the collaborative features of Office 2000 even further, making it easier to track, compare, and merge changes made by multiple contributors.

New collaboration features
A new collaborative feature is Send For Review, which allows you to attach the document to an e-mail message with the appropriate reviewing tools automatically enabled. To use this feature, select File | Send To and then click on Mail Recipient (For Review).

The changes can be easily merged back into the original when they are returned. When you open the returned document, you will be asked if you wish to merge the changes back into the original (see Figure F).

Figure F
Office XP makes it easier than ever to merge changes made to documents.

A markup pane, shown in Figure G below the document, lists the changes made to the document so you can tell at a glance what modifications have been made without obscuring the layout or text of the original document.

Figure G
The markup pane shows changes and comments at a glance.

You can also configure options to mark changes and comments with a balloon in the left or right margin, as shown in Figure H.

Figure H
Comments and changes are marked with balloons for easier recognition.

Integration with SharePoint Team Services
For the ultimate in collaboration, Microsoft has built Office XP to integrate seamlessly with their SharePoint Team Services. SharePoint Team Services allow a user to create and share data and manage information and activities via the Web browser.

Document libraries can be used for storing Office documents on a Web server, in a “team space” that is accessible to all those who need to collaborate on a project.

Keeping it safe: Improved recovery and security features
Office XP has a number of new or improved features designed to protect your data. These include recovery from application errors as well as new security features.

Document recovery following application errors
Document recovery is greatly improved in Office XP. Users are now given an option to save any open files if the application crashes. Additionally, the new application and document recovery feature allows you to initiate recovery of a document when you shut down a hung application (shown as Not Responding in Task Manager). When errors such as these occur, you will be given the option to report the error to Microsoft or to an in-house IT support department.

Excel and Word include a new feature called Repair And Extract, which allows you to repair a corrupt file that will not open. It can be accessed via the File | Open dialog box, using the drop-down arrow to the right of the Open button (see Figure I).

Figure I
You can use the Open And Repair feature to repair corrupt files.

Excel and Publisher now enjoy the same AutoRecovery protection as Word and PowerPoint.

Improved document encryption
Word and Excel have allowed you to encrypt documents in the past, but now you can also encrypt PowerPoint presentations. Additionally, you can select to either use the encryption method supported by Office 2000 for backward compatibility or you can use standard CryptoAPI, which offers more protection.

To select encryption options, click Tools | Options | Security. Here, you can also set passwords, configure privacy options, add digital signatures, and adjust the security level for macro protection. The encryption type is set by clicking the Advanced button and choosing an encryption method, as shown in Figure J.

Figure J
You can select from different encryption methods to protect Office documents.

If you select a strong encryption method, you can also set a key length and choose whether document properties should also be encrypted.

Neat and new: Speech and handwriting recognition
Two of the most dramatic additions to Office XP are the built-in speech and handwriting recognition functions. You can control these features using the Language Bar, shown in Figure K.

Figure K
Use the Language Bar to control speech and handwriting recognition tools.

Speech recognition
The speech recognition feature encompasses two different functions:
  • Dictation: Gives you the ability to dictate words that will be transcribed into typed text in the Office program.
  • Voice command: Gives you the ability to invoke menu options and commands via your voice.

You cannot use dictation and voice command modes at the same time, but you can switch between the two quickly using the Language Bar.

Speech recognition works only in the U.S. English, Simplified Chinese, and Japanese language versions of Office. Also, the voice command feature has greater functionality in the U.S. English version. You can select dialog box and task pane items by voice, in addition to the menu and toolbar items that can be selected in the other two languages.

In working with the speech recognition features, I’ve found the dictation mode to be (like other dictation programs such as Dragon Dictate) less than perfect at understanding my Texas accent. After extensive training, the recognition rate gets better. However, if you are a fast typist, you will probably find that even when it works relatively well, dictation is far slower than using the keyboard. This feature definitely does work if you have the patience to work with it, and it would be very useful to a user who, due to injury or disability, is unable to use the keyboard or who is a very slow typist.

I found the voice command feature far more interesting and compelling. Unlike dictation mode, the voice command mode had no trouble whatsoever recognizing the commands I spoke and complied with them promptly. It’s nice to be able to just say “file” and have the file menu drop down—it gives one a certain sense of mastery over the machine. More importantly, using the voice commands in conjunction with keyboard commands almost frees you completely from the necessity of taking your hands off the keyboard to use a pointing device, and that speeds up your productivity considerably.

System requirements are increased if you want to use speech recognition. Not only do you need a 400-MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM but you’ll also need a high-quality microphone or headset with gain adjustment support for best results.

Handwriting recognition
The handwriting recognition feature works in all the language versions that support speech and also in the Traditional Chinese and Korean language versions.

Handwriting recognition can be used with a mouse, but you’ll find it works much better with a graphics tablet. This feature will be welcomed by Pocket PC users, as it allows you to convert your handwritten notes from the Pocket PC into Microsoft Word documents.

You can configure various options for handwriting recognition, such as:
  • Pen color.
  • Pen width (width of the pen stroke).
  • Whether to automatically insert a space after words.
  • Background color.
  • The number of lines on which you can write.

Has Microsoft hit a home run with their new version of Office or did they strike out? It’s up to Office users to decide whether the new features warrant an upgrade or whether they’re merely “neat toys” that don’t justify the added XPense. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve provided a first look at Office XP and discussed just a few of the many changes that have been made to improve (or in a few cases, it seems, to impede) the functionality of its applications. My assessment: Moving into the new Office is an XPerience I would not want to miss.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox