Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Preview

Microsoft has just begun to issue Beta versions of the next iteration of its Office for Mac software to testers, and claims that it’s still on track to release the new version of its productivity software in January next year.

It’s about time. Three years have passed since Microsoft launched Office 2004 for Mac. That suite of applications debuted back in the spring of that year and a lot has happened since.

Apple’s own iWork suite was launched in January 2005, bringing together year-old Keynote and the new desktop-publishing application, Pages, into one package. While the collection did offer excellent integration with Apple’s iLife tools, it didn’t include spreadsheet, database or drawing tools, so couldn’t really be positioned as a competitor to Microsoft’s industry-standard software.

Then in October 2006 Google launched Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Google Docs is a free, web-based word processor and spreadsheet application that enables users to create and edit documents online and also collaborate with other users. A presentation application is expected to launch this summer, further positioning the collection of applications as a competitor to Office.

The other significant change is Apple’s move to Intel processors. This colossal modification has seen Macs enjoy a surge in popularity as tools such as Boot Camp and virtualisation software such as Parallels have invalidated the incompatibility excuse and enticed die-hard Windows fans onto the platform.

The move to Intel processors is one key reason for the delay in getting the next version of Office ready for Mac users. Microsoft developers have had to rewrite much of the code from the ground up in order for it to run on the Intel-driven Macs.

Office 2004 is not available in Universal binaries, so for now running Office on a new Intel-powered Mac requires Rosetta. This technology runs in the background, translating the code into something that the Intel processor understands. Under Rosetta, Office is usable, although some lag has been seen in actions such as scrolling through large documents. Luckily, the processors are so fast that no real loss of productivity is seen when compared to PowerPC Macs.

When the software isn’t running through the Rosetta translator we expect to see astronomical speed increases, and reports indicate that the new version runs at unprecedented speeds. Sheridan Jones, group marketing manager for the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit, told Macworld: “I’m really impressed with the speed of the Intel version, especially with graphics intensive tasks.”

It’s not just the speed of the new version that has us excited, however. Macworld has had a look at some of the new features we can expect to see in the new version of the Office productivity suite, all of which should make the applications more accessible, and some of which, you will be able to boast to your PC-using friends, are Mac-only.

Publishing Layout View
One of the most exciting Mac-only features is the new Publishing Layout View. This feature adds DTP-style page layout capabilities to Word, including automatic reflow of text boxes and easy to use templates for creating content rich documents such as newsletters, fliers and brochures.

The tool integrates with iPhoto to make it possible to simply drag and drop images directly onto the page. Automatic text run-around ensures the finished product looks professional as text flows around the images.

Similarly, excess copy is automatically flowed into a linked text box that can be placed elsewhere on that page or the next. The automatic reflow of text is one of the most impressive features, all the more impressive for its not being included in the Windows version.

In previewing these features Microsoft emphasised that many of them are already available in Word today, but that the philosophy behind the new iteration is to make such features “more discoverable”.

Elements Gallery

The new Elements Gallery user interface is one way in which Microsoft intends to make elements of the Office suite easier to discover. “Part of our mission with Office 2008 is to expose all the things that are already there and make the product easier to use,” explained Jones.

The new interface – made possible by Microsoft’s cross-platform graphics engine called Office Art 2.0 – emphasises discoverability and gives quick access to tools and Mac-specific features within applications. It borrows the idea from the Ribbon in the Windows version of Office 2007, but with some subtle differences.

In Office 2007 for Windows the Ribbon completely replaces the menus and toolbars. Microsoft decided early on that it would not do away with menus and toolbars in the Mac version – reports indicate that early consumer research found that Mac users were not happy to lose the toolbars. Instead the Mac version includes a floating Inspector pane that combines the formatting palette and toolbox into a single pane that appears and vanishes with a Dock-like ‘Genie effect’. Similarly, a set of tabs under the toolbar expand when selected, giving access to options like templates in Word’s Publishing Layout View.

Document Parts is another usability feature. This automates some of the most common document tasks, such as adding a table of contents or headers and footers to documents. The user builds pages by dragging and dropping elements such as headers, footers and cover pages onto the document.

While these interface changes may expose more of the features buried several clicks deep, and hence make it easier to access previously undiscovered features, they do little to minimise the clutter, and in some cases cause duplication, at the top of the screen.

Office Art 2.0
Dubbed “Clip Art on steroids”, Office Art 2.0 is one feature shared with the new Windows version of Office.
Office Art 2.0 offers improved graphics rendering and means that users can create robust effects without having to resort to a special graphics design program, according to Jones.

Put simply, Office Art 2.0 provides users with the ability to add professionally designed graphics with a click of a button.

One area where Mac users will gain more benefit than their Windows counterparts is the fact that the Art 2.0 engine will also take advantage of the Mac’s Quartz graphics engine.

However, Office Art is also an area where compatibility issues are rife. Currently users of Mac versions of Office are unable to edit Windows-created Office Art 2.0 objects – and it is conceivable that there may be some backwards compatibility issues even when the Mac version is available. Currently, when viewed in Mac versions of Office, Office Art 2.0 objects convert into bitmaps and are not editable. Some colour, shadings and tables may be lost too.

My Day
Another new Mac-only feature is My Day, an idea that seems to have evolved from the idea of Widgets, without actually being a Widget itself.

My Day allows users to track priorities and manage to do lists. It’s a stand-alone application that lets users interact with Entourage’s calendar and tasks features, adding details and colour coding jobs without actually having to launch Entourage. It’s not necessary to have it open all the time. Click ctrl-spacebar to launch My Day, or use a single click to hide it.

Microsoft’s Jones revealed that the company’s Mac Business Unit had considered making the My Day feature a Widget, but that: “Overwhelmingly people wanted it as a standalone application.”

This early version of the Office 2008 suite didn’t alert the user to the presence of Entourage emails. As yet Microsoft has revealed no details of new features that will appear in the email aspect of the suite.

Ledger Sheets
The final Mac-only feature is Ledger Sheets. These are ready-made templates for handling common financial management tasks. For example, home and small-business users will be able to balance cheque books, track accounts or manage investment portfolios, according to Microsoft.

Jones claimed that Mac users are crying out for simple-to-use accounting tools. This may be due to the lack of accounting software available for Mac users, or on the other hand because small businesses are increasingly opting for Macs rather than virus-riddled PCs.

Ledger Sheets are pre-set with the relevant formula and automatically recognise the different elements when inserted. For example, import a bank statement into Ledger Sheets as a CSV file and it will recognise debits, credits, dates and so on, and arrange this information in the pre-formulated spreadsheet

“This is for those people who want to do financial management tasks like a cheque register or issuing invoices or managing a portfolio, but are intimidated by formulae,” explained Jones.

OUR VERDICT

Set to launch by the end of the year, Microsoft Office 2008 will be a must-have for anyone with an Intel-powered Mac. It promises speed increases as well as enhancements that will make users even more productive. Microsoft says it has focused on making existing tools more discoverable in this version of the suite and any user interface tweaks that have bought hidden features to the surface seem set to be a bonus. However, if some of the tools bought to the surface don’t interest you, then the screen may feel over cluttered. Compatibility issues with earlier versions of the suite may also cause a few headaches, although Microsoft claims that it will provide the necessary updates soon after launch.

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