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Monday, July 9, 2001
Lead Article

The Office as an XPerience
Roopinder Singh

DIGITAL IMAGING BY GAURAV SOODWith 13 crore registered users, Microsoft Office is already a best-selling product. How do you improve it? Add features and re-launch it. Microsoft has successfully used this formula several times as it steered its popular software suit through various incarnations. Every time users bought the upgraded product, they thought that it had all the conceivable features. Yet, soon enough, the company came out with a newer version that was even more feature-rich.

THIS led to a peculiar situation when most of the users would not use many features. In fact, according to Microsoft sources, it was found that most of the customers were using less than 20 per cent of the features.

Microsoft Office XP (for experience) is really a major upgrade. There has been much effort to improve the way in which previous features were arranged and to make it intuitive. This does not mean that it lacks new features.


While users will drool over new features, they also need to be aware that Office XP has advanced anti-piracy features, including the controversial online activation, without which the program goes into a reduced functionality mode within 30 days. You have to buy it to use it.

Speech recognition

The latest version of Microsoft Office is full of features. I am dictating this sentence on the computer, something I really wanted to do but could not have done with an earlier version.

Of course, it makes mistakes but then, my mother and my teachers always laid stress on proper enunciation, something I wish that I had learnt to do at the right time. You can also use speech recognition to dictate text; direct formatting changes, and navigate menus.

Speech recognition is surely a rather dramatic feature in the latest version of Microsoft Office though it has not been stressed much in the company publicity literature. Handwriting recognition is another feature that is intriguing, though it needs special hardware like a digitising pad. It’s usefulness will, however, depend on users’ need.

Office also offers many other things, including features that help in formatting and in correcting mistakes and integrating various Office suits, including Word, Excel, Power Point and Access.

The backbone of Microsoft Office is arguably Word, which has been the most used Office product the world over since the ’80s when there were at least six word processors vying for a place in the sun. Who’s heard of Nisus, Write Now, or Write, which were contenders for a top slot then? One of the reasons for that is a simple fact that Microsoft Word is really good and over the years, it has become better. Is Word better in XP?

Let’s now examine some of the new things that XP provides. We will focus more on the features of Word right now.

Smart Tags

One of the first major advances in the Smart Tags. Essentially, a Smart Tag is a little XML-based pop-up lightning-bolt icon that appears as you use the programs within the Office suit. It seems to say: "If you want, you can click me for a list of features that could be useful right now." These icons appear when the program thinks that the user needs some help. Most of the time they are helpful. To take an example, say that you paste something. A Smart Tag will ask you if you want to keep the formatting, change it to match the destination, keep the text or use some special formatting. If you click on the later, it will give you various options in the task bar.

These context-dependant tags run across the Office suit of applications (formula error correction in Excel for example) and are not obtrusive. You can turn off the option, though, ironically, it comes in very handy when Smart Tags offer to undo the effect of Word’s various auto capitalisation, auto bulleting and other auto formatting options.

Smart Tags in Office should not be confused with those in Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 that have aroused much controversy.

Being able to match the destination formatting takes out a lot of drudgery and is a good innovation. Actually, things have improved a lot in the cut and paste department. The Office clipboard also gives the ability to copy 24 bits of information across various Office applications and the task bar allows you to see little visual representations of what you have copied.

Task pane

The task pane is at the right of the document, which gives easy access to important things that you might be doing. This is also context dependent, if are formatting something, you will see formatting details.

As expected, Microsoft has integrated various tasks within Microsoft Office suit and a good example of this can be seen in Excel in which users can easily access and update fresh data from the Web by using the "Smart Tag" feature. All that you do is to go to any Web site and copy the information (such as stock tickers, weather updates, or news) that you want to analyse. After you paste this information in Excel, you can select "create refreshable Web query" from the Smart Tag that will appear. The information will then be updated by either manually refreshing the data or by giving a time frame to the program, automatically keeping your spread sheets or databases up to date.

Another small but significant improvement is that Word now lets you select more than one chunk of text that the same time. You can thus select something that is occurring many times in the document by using the Find command and even make formatting changes to it, say finding a Hindi word and italicising it.

Managing e-mail

Another thing that is well integrated is managing e-mail in one place. Microsoft Outlook makes it easy to send and receive e-mails from multiple accounts, including Hotmail. You can also send and receive instant messages with Microsoft Messenger.

Keeping its eyes on the corporate market, XP has made it easy to coordinate schedules and activities by managing all appointment and task reminders in a single window. Outlook makes it easy to resolve scheduling conflicts—you can quickly review your group's schedule and allow others to propose alternate meeting times. I really wish that we were wired enough to use this feature!

Collaboration tools

One area in which the latest Office is scored heavily, is collaborative features, though it might not be of much use for the average user, since it is specifically targeted at corporate users. A "Send for Review" command streamlines the feedback process for documents made in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. It is a structured document-routing and approval process that can help expedite group document editing.

It collates the various suggestions made by reviewers into a single document using colour-coded balloons that show the changes made by the reviewers. Of course, it gives the author full control over the comments and revisions to accept or reject.

Share Point Team Services is another new corporate feature which is essentially an easy-to-use, build-it-yourself Web site for project teams to conduct discussions, exchange files and so on. There would be limited utility for such a feature in the Indian context.

Reliability and security

One of the most important advances in is the better reliability and security of this software. In case of a crash (and there were two while this article was being processed) Office XP keeps a backup of your work, till virtually the last minute, thereby giving you back the data you could have lost. The repair and recovery features activate automatically. With "Document Recovery" you have the option to automatically save your current document at the time the application stops responding, so you don't lose a moment's work. In a simple process, you can decide if you want to resave the original file, restart an auto-recovered file, or save the current crashing/hanging version before the data disappears forever. It works, and the feeling that you get when you get your data back is great.

Microsoft also claims that its powerful new anti-virus tools help IT professionals control team security settings, reducing the risk of virus attacks. This is especially important since Outlook, Office’s e-mail suit is popular and had been the target of many attacks by hackers. The latest Outlook enhances protection against self-replicating viruses such as "Melissa" and "I Love You" from damaging users' files or reputations. Outlook now restricts an external application's access to its address book and contacts; predefined programs are granted access, but for only a specified length of time.

Outlook will block 38 attachment file types, such as BAT, EXE, VBS, and JS and users will have to "unblock" one of these types to open the file. What's more, HTML message scripts are blocked by default as protection against embedded viruses. Critics claim that the cure is worse than the disease since blocking macros and common file attachment types could hamper productivity.

Actually, it’s up to you, it’s a question of what your priority is, safety or ease of use. Of course, there is no guarantee that the security is bullet proof and unfortunately, experience has shown that hackers are all too often take such claims as challenges. The jury is still out on this one.

Activation issue

In order to make it difficult for software pirates, Microsoft has come out with an online activation that has raised many hackles. Normally, when you buy software, you receive an activation key in the package and it enables you to install the software. This is the most common anti-piracy measure that has been around for many years. With Office XP, after you punch in the key number, you are required to activate the software via Internet within 30 days or it goes into a "reduced functionality mode," where "you will not be able to save modifications to documents, or create a new document, and additional functionality may be reduced." For those who do not have Internet access, phone activation is required. You can install the software on two different machines (the logic is a laptop and a desk computer for everyone).

A controversial feature of this activation is that in case you change the configuration of your computer significantly, you will have to reactivate the computer, otherwise the software will not work. In one well-publicised case in America, a computer columnist’s laptop Office installation went into the "reduced functionality mode" without any change in the hardware profile, and at the time of going to Press, there was still no explanation for this.

There is no doubt that companies are entitled to all protection from piracy but when it intrudes into the functionality of the programs, rethinking is necessary.

At a price of Rs 20,500 Microsoft Office is not cheap, but for a software that helps you complete common business tasks, including word processing, e-mail, presentations, data management and analysis, and much more, many would say that its not too much of a price to pay.

Some other options

There are other alternatives to Microsoft Office XP and one of the top contenders would be WordPerfect Office 2002, long a favourite with legal offices in the West. Like Microsoft Office XP, WordPerfect Office 2002 comes in several versions, including Standard, Professional, and Academic. The standard version includes WordPerfect 10, the Quattro Pro 10 spreadsheet (which can read and write Excel files), Corel Presentations 10, and Corel Central 10, a personal information manager. The professional version adds Paradox 10, a relational database, and Dragon Naturally Speaking dictation module.

Lotus Smartsuite Millennium Edition’s latest version is 9.6. It includes Lotus WordPro, Lotus 1-2-3, Lotus Organizer, and Lotus Approach.


For those looking for freebies, there is Sun’s Star Office 5.2., available for Windows, Linux, and Solaris Operating Systems. Star Office combines word processing, spreadsheet, graphic design, presentation, HTML editing, e-mail, newsreader, scheduling, and database functions in a single environment. It can be downloaded at (http://www.sun.com/staroffice).

There is also 602 Pro PC Suite that includes a good basic word processor, spreadsheet, and photo editor. It can be downloaded free at (http://www.software602.com/products/pcs). Other add-ons are available at a cost. They include 602Pro Lan Suit that enables you to send e-mail and faxes directly over the LAN from 602Pro PC SUITE and add Internet sharing for an entire network; 602Pro Plus Pack which is an add-on for 602Pro PC Suit2000 with which you can create interactive photo albums, organize your documents/images with 602Desk, extended spelling with thesaurus etc; 602Pro Print Pack that enables you to convert any document into PDF or HTML E-mail for instant delivery.


Minimum system requirements









Hard Disk







Operating System




Computer with a Pentium 133-megahertz (MHz) or higher processor

For all Office XP suites:RAM requirements depend on the operating system used: 

  • Windows '98, or Windows '98 Second Edition24 MB of RAM plus an additional 8 MB of RAM for each Office program (such as Microsoft Word) running simultaneously
  • Windows Me, or Microsoft Windows NT®32 MB of RAM plus an additional 8 MB of RAM for each Office application (such as Microsoft Word) running simultaneously
  • Windows 2000 Professional64 MB of RAM plus an additional 8 MB of RAM for each Office application (such as Microsoft Word) running simultaneously

Hard disk space requirements will vary depending on configuration; custom installation choices may require more or less. Listed below are the minimum hard disk requirements for Office XP suites:

  • Office XP Standard210 MB of available hard disk space
  • Office XP Professional and Professional Special Edition245 MB of available hard disk space An additional 115 MB is required on the hard disk where the operating system is installed. Users without Windows 2000, Windows Me, or Office 2000 Service Release 1 (SR-1) require an extra 50 MB of hard disk space for System Files Update.

Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 6 (SP6) or later, or Windows 2000 or later.

CD-ROM drive

Super VGA (800 x 600) or higher-resolution monitor with 256 colours

Microsoft Mouse, Microsoft IntelliMouse, or compatible pointing device



Office XP is more robust and capable; it's better equipped with excellent Web integration features such as SharePoint collaborative sites, the GUI is slicker and smoother. Smart tags and task panes enhance productivity dynamically. It's got an inbuilt speech/handwriting recognition engine that is comparable to the best in the market. The inbuilt translational tool is convenient to use. More importantly, the crash recovery feature can save hours of working time.
I was not happy about having to activate it online. Also I noticed that sometimes large word documents takes more time to open than in the previous version.

Great. I think it is quite worthwhile in more ways than one to upgrade to the newest version of Office. 
Robin Jose, Executive, Software Development 
Siemens, Bangalore.

Data recovery tools 
Built-in voice recognition system 
Those pesky little office helpers are still around in this version. They sit there and just bug us all the time. The new improved ones have some cosmetic and technology upgrades still are silly.
It looks and feels like the Web. Every component from buttons to menus has a 3D effect and Web feel to it. Moreover, we can store our files on the Web and can access our documents from anywhere like home, office, etc. It is a strong product in the making that will need some time getting around whereby people can get the hang of it and fully exploit it. 
Dr. B.S. Gill, Coordinator, Group Projects, 
Rana Informatics Ltd., Chandigarh
Smart Tags 
Send for Review 
Auto Recovery
Nothing much, though at times it can be too intelligent, which can get irritating, for example the icons on the tool bar keep disappearing if they are not used often and get replaced by icons recently used.

Pretty positive. Definitely a value addition to my current working experience. Features like Send for Review is a big plus over the previous edition as it enhances the quality of the output. Smart Tags are again a productivity-enhancing feature as they save a lot of time in routine activities like formatting documents etc. 
Sandeep Shetty, Account Executive 
DraftWorldwide India Pvt. Ltd.