Software as tools part 2 – Microsoft’s Office 2007 and Sun’s Open Office 3

Sometime ago I wrote a serialised article about Microsoft Office (2003) and some of its shortcomings, I thought I would talk about Office 2007 and its free open source rival Open Office.

Office 2007

Ribbon.

The main selling point is the ribbon interface which will implemented into all of Microsoft’s future applications. One of the good things about Microsoft Office was the fact the user interface and icon toolbars were consistent after each version had come out Office 97, Office 2000 and Office XP (also called Office 2002) then Office 2003, but with Office 2007 Microsoft decided to make a big stride forward and change a lot with an overhaul of how the menu features work.

Initial signs look good, the icons look pretty and neat. However, the icons rearrange themselves in a fashion after analysing which functions you use most frequently. This seems like a good idea in theory, but actually my thinking is users will hate it. The reason why is icon should stay in the same place and not move, the buttons in your car don’t change around, everything should be consistent so during training whether from a book or from a teacher, people are not confused. Some icons were absent when I was using Word, a simple item like ‘find and replace’ was not there, easy enough for an IT person like me to use Control F, but not for a typical office worker, I think this whole ribbon concept a total waste of time.

Apart from the ribbon, the other worthwhile note is the button in the top left hand corner, works like a Windows Start button in reverse, pressing this gives a list of menu functions for saving, printing etc, instead of along the top, this is somewhat confusing to office workers and IT professionals alike, also takes some getting used to.

Improvements.

Word 2007 and Excel 2007 look radically different with the ribbon interface but strangely Outlook 2007, looks more or less like Outlook 2003 with the small exception of a new search button easily finding key words in your mail. Normally before you had to right click on inbox and search from there. As its something you use often it makes sense to move it to somewhere prominent, good effort there MS.

My many critical point of previous versions of Outlook was its poor way of storing mail in archives, I have not had a chance to really see how this differs in Outlook 207 though.

Overall there’s not a lot of other bits that have changed. Really as the last few versions of Office have had graphics, colour text, spell and grammar checking etc, its hard to think of anything extra that could be useful for the average business.

Compatibility.

Some aspects of the .DOC file format has changed with introduction of Office 2007. Not sure what differences these are, but one of my previous workplaces rolled out the Office 2007 compatibility add on for Office 2003 (they have 2007 on a trial but had no plans to actually go live) which lets you open the newer files transparently in 2003.

Business.

Office 2007 is available very cheaply (I think about £17) to NHS workers for the last few years, the NHS, being Microsoft’s biggest client in the UK gets a unique ‘all you can eat’ licence deal agreement for Windows and Office on as many PCs as they want, so to keep a very firm stranglehold on keeping MS Office in our health systems right through to the 201x’s. Also there are generous discounts to students and teachers with Educational editions of Office 2007 as was offered in its previous incarnation, obviously a making sure our children and students only grow up using one set of tools to do their course work.

The full version for businesses in both retail (in those funny new curved cereal type boxes) or as a volume licence edition for businesses is still pretty high as before.

Open Office 3

This free alternative is strikingly similar to Office 2003 in terms of the application’s layout which is no bad thing. Loading / saving files, editing, tables, printing is all very very similar to Office 2003.

The thing I like about it is that its easy to pick up and start using it straight away, as its consistent in use.

Open Office doesnt have a mail client in use, but if you want a different free alternative you can instead use Firefox’s creator Mozilla’s Thunderbird.

Compatibility.

Open Office using its own .ODF or Open office Document File format, which makes a lot of sense in having a new generic format thats not tied to one vendor but intended to be established standard for all office applications everyone in true ethos that is part of free software by having the inner workings of the product available for people to dissect in detail should they want to.

The sad fact is the .DOC and .XLS format for Word and Excel respectively have been around for so long, its exremely hard to imagine anything changing that, especially when businesses exchange files with each other. “its Open what standard?” or “We cannot open your CV, did you send the right file?” is situations I can see happening.

Some government organisation in France and Germany have adopted Linux and Open Source software and made it work for them as well as save a huge amount of money, so it would be interesting to see how they made it through this scenarios.

Conclusion.

Just because a piece of software is free it by no means its amateurish or cuts corners on quality, the team of volunteers that put together seem to do a great job and updates and patches are available as an when needed like any other software application. Like Firefox, Open Office now has a plug in system to load on bolt on extras onto your application suite to any extra customisation where needed, also is support for numerous different languages both with the menus and help systems and support for non-European alphabets as well.

Overall, using Open Office for my own requirements at home works extremely well and I am very pleased with it.

IT managers looking to consider Office 2007 should really trial this well as I think a lot of retraining would need to be done for end users as its likely confusion will result with its usability.

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