A Closer Look at Word and Excel 2003

by Patricia Fusco

This week, we take a look at the heart and soul of Microsoft's productivity suite for small businesses — the 2003 editions of Word and Excel. While these mainstay applications of offices around the world are fairly mature, Microsoft has created a few interesting new functions that caught our attention.

Over the next several weeks we'll be taking a closer look at each of the elements included in the Small Business Edition of Microsoft Office 2003. This includes Word, Excel, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, PowerPoint, Publisher and relevant add-on applications, such as SharePoint.

This week, we take a look at the heart and soul of Microsoft's productivity suite for small businesses — the 2003 editions of Word and Excel. While these mainstay applications of offices around the world are fairly mature, Microsoft has created a few interesting new functions that caught our attention.

But why change a good thing?

Katie Jordan, Microsoft Office senior product manager, said its computing solutions are changing because small businesses are changing.

"Small businesses are facing a challenging business landscape," Jordan said. "As a result, today's small businesses are focusing on how to generate more business value and improve productivity with personal impact, effective teams, business information and process management."

With this in mind, Microsoft developed its Office 2003 Small Business Edition for companies with fewer than 50 employees and limited IT staffing. Jordan said that generally speaking, these types of small businesses complete a technology upgrade every five to eight years.

"The majority of the software these smaller businesses purchase consists of general counting applications, business productivity software and anti-virus solutions," Jordan said. "What stops these small businesses from adopting new technologies are cash flow, hidden costs of implementation, and a plain, old-fashioned desire to avoid risk. We think the Small Business Edition can overcome these barriers."

What's New in Office 2003?
The first time you launch any Office 2003 application you'll notice that the risk of unfamiliarity with the programs is nearly nil. Upon reviewing the most recent Beta release of the Microsoft Office System, we found that the user interface has been fine-tuned with glitzy new icons and a subtle splash of color, but the heart of Microsoft's business productivity application remains very familiar.

The 2003 version of Word makes it easier than ever to read documents on a computer — without the need to print the document on paper. Word 2003 automatically optimizes its display for the screen size and resolution you are using on your computer. Also, a new reading layout view improves the overall reading experience.

The reading layout view (show above) allows users to view two pages at once and flip through other pages the same way that you would flip through a book. Rather than scrolling, pages are flipped one or two at a time to simulate the experience of reading a book, which reduces eyestrain by making it easier for a user's eyes to track the text.

Users can also browse a document using the new thumbnail view, which lets them jump to a particular page by clicking on an image of that page. Meanwhile, the document map displays the structure of the document similar to a table of contents. You can also highlight portions of the document and add comments — without switching out of the reading layout view.

Word 2003 also provides improved features for creating foreign language documents and for using documents in a multiple language setting. Enhancements to typography result in better display of text in more languages than ever before. Word 2003 also supports more Unicode ranges and includes improved support for combining diacritics, such as Æ, ç, or ß and the like.

The mail merge function has also been updated to help you choose the correct greeting format based on the gender of the recipient — if the language requires it. Mail merge can also format addresses based on the geographical region of the recipient. This is a very handy feature for in-house marketing projects.

Also new is ability to support ink devices, such as a Tablet PC. If you are using a device that supports handwritten input, you can use the tablet pen to take advantage of these functions in Word. This allows you to mark-up a document with handwritten comments and annotations, incorporate handwritten content into a Word document, and send handwritten e-mail using WordMail in Outlook.

What's New in Excel 2003?

While some may dispute that numbers and subsequently their keepers don't have souls, accountant's spirits will be lifted by one of Excel 2003's new functions. Microsoft has finally found a way to keep column titles on-screen. With the 2003 edition of Excel, there are no more disappearing column titles — you can freeze or lock column titles in place. So if you're scrolling up, down or across a vast a spreadsheet, you still know which column is what.

Also new to Excel 2003 is the ability to compare side-by-side spreadsheets. This feature allows you to compare budgets in the same window (shown below). Scrolling is mirrored between the two spreadsheets, so it's easy to compare different department budgets in one view. For example, after opening two workbooks in the same window, when you scroll in one worksheet, Excel automatically scrolls the same amount of cells in the second worksheet. Because you can see the same locations in both worksheets at the same time, it's no trouble at all to compare the differences between the two.

One particularly neat function built into Excel 2003 is a "Quick Auto Sum Calculator." By highlighting a group of data and selecting the function, you can add the numbers together, or average a minimum or maximum range of numbers. How many times have you been in a spreadsheet only to have to open up your desktop calculator to do a little quick math? While at first glance this appears to be an innocuous function in a spreadsheet, it really is a handy tool to have at the ready.

For those of you that are tired of typing the same lists over and over again, or copying and pasting lists from one spreadsheet to another, Excel 2003 comes equipped to fill in the blanks. Months of the year, days of the week, and even your company's sales regions or employee names are automatically entered. All you have to do is type in one or two entries, and Excel completes the rest of the list.

Conditional formatting is another new feature in Excel 2003. Conditional formatting allows you to make certain values jump out on the page when the conditions are right. You can quickly see what you're looking for in a large mass of data. Let's say that you want look at sales of items under-25 units. Conditional formatting allows you to set the parameters of the program to make underachieving sales figures "Bold Red," for example, and sub-par sales stand out on the spreadsheet in bold, red type.

To setup conditional formatting, you start by selecting the column that contains the sales numbers and then click "Conditional Formatting" on the "Format" menu. The conditional formatting dialog box is rather large and a little intimidating at first, because it's built to take into account of a lot of possible conditions. But once you know which boxes and buttons to pay attention to, it's relatively easy to use.

First you choose the cell value conditions to trigger the conditional formatting by selecting "less than" and typing "25." Then you click the "Format" button to pick "Bold Red" formatting for any values less than 25. Now Excel knows that the condition that triggers bold red formatting is any value that is less than 25 units in the sales column.

You can add up to three conditions to a cell or a given range of cells. Whether it's good or bad sales, rising or falling sales figures, or anything else you want to be sure to notice, conditional formatting is an easy way to call your attention to the data that matters the most to you. Then you can quickly tell when to hand out congratulations for a job well done or take steps to stop the damage when the news is bad.

What's New in Both Word and Excel 2003
The level of assistance that both Word and Excel 2003 provide is impressive. Not that Clippit, Links the Cat or The Dot have been replaced — you can still activate these helpful animated office assistants to nag you about saving files and such. However, these office assistants are turned off by default. To show an Office Assistant, simply click "Help" and select "show" Office Assistant.

What's really helpful is the ability to search for assistance. A small text box in the upper right corner of both applications allows you to type in what sort of assistance you need and a dialogue box opens up with a slew of options — one of which will likely answer your question.

Also new is the ability to fax directly from any application within Office 2003. Fax over Internet allows you to send and receive faxes using a third party Internet fax service. The entry point is from the "File" menu, simply point to "Send To" and click on the recipient using Internet fax service.

What's Missing?
Neither Word nor Excel 2003 allows you to convert text to PDFs. Also missing from the Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business Edition is support for XML document creation. XML features, except for saving files as XML documents, are available only in Microsoft Office 2003 Professional editions. Not that small-businesses are aching to attach an XML schema to any document. It's just that the Small Business Edition doesn't allow for the option to do so.

There you have it — Word and Excel, the heart and soul of Microsoft Office 2003, the Small Business Edition. At this time, Microsoft remains tight-lipped about the pricing and release date of its heralded business productivity suite. Let's just hope the heart and soul of this year's "break though" in small business computing doesn't end up costing an arm and a leg.

Next week, we take a look at Microsoft's 2003 updates of Publisher and PowerPoint, two other elements that comprise the Small Business Edition.

This article was originally published on Tuesday Jul 29th 2003
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