By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
When Microsoft introduced Windows 95 a year and a half ago, the software giant rolled out a new version of its popular Microsoft Office software. Except for a few enhancements in its standard-setting word processor, Microsoft Word, the suite of programs called Office for Windows 95 seemed like old code in new clothing.
Programs in Office 95 worked more or less the way they did under the old version of Windows, and that meant they took little advantage of the vast improvements in the way Windows 95 allows programs to work together. Office 95 also lacked a central, unifying program. When you ran Office 95, you ran a word processor or a scheduling program or a spreadsheet; you didn't run Office 95 itself.
Microsoft officials admitted privately that they were embarrassed over one other aspect of Office 95—its near-total ignorance of the burgeoning Internet. Office 95 programs had no built-in World Wide Web enhancements, and the only way to use them on the Internet was to pretend the Internet was just a big version of an office network—a tactic that ignored all the special requirements of the Internet.
So it was not surprising to find Microsoft giving private demonstrations of a new version of Office late last year. What is unusual in the revamped office suite—now available as Office 97—is a radical approach to the integration of most of the major functions of communication on a computer. This is handled by Outlook, the newest and most impressive part of Office 97.
Outlook coordinates the many activities of a typical week at the office (or at a busy home) by putting e-mail, regular mail, scheduling, note-taking and similar activities under the control of one program. Each function is linked to all the others, so that dragging a name in an address list over to an icon of a calendar will quickly create a meeting schedule, for example.
Outlook also replaces one of the most confusing parts of Windows 95, the mail-and-fax Exchange program. Outlook's Inbox is a vastly improved e-mail manager, with dozens of ways to categorize, filter, report on and control electronic mail.
But improvements of this kind are expected. What sets Outlook apart—while hinting strongly of a division among Microsoft programmers—is the way Outlook is able to take over nearly every function of the core program of Windows 95, Explorer.
Explorer is what programmer's call the "shell" of the Windows 95 operating system. It must always be running, providing the windows and menus for navigating through the computer's files and folders and supplying easy ways to launch programs.
Explorer's many annoyances have become legendary in just 18 months. The worst may be its refusal to remember its settings for window sizes and icon positions, followed closely by its odd way of opening one kind of window one time and another kind later on, almost at random.
Outlook's main window normally opens to show waiting e-mail. But with a quick click, the Outlook window transforms itself into a view of all items in the computer, from the computer's desktop on down to the smallest file in a nearly buried folder. In every view of a folder or drive, any settings the user changes (to see large icons in a document folder but a text list in another area, for example) is stored within Outlook and recalled instantly each time it is used.
The programmers who developed Outlook reportedly added this function as a way of showing the team of Windows 95 programmers how to do such a thing right. (One report said the Windows programming team had made fun of the Office-suite programmers over some of the quirks of Office 95, and the amazing improvements in Office 97 resulted in part from a reaction to this in-house rivalry.)
This rivalry surfaced in the computing magazines shortly after the introduction of Windows 95 and its Exchange software. Reporters in the computing press noticed how different some features of Exchange were from what should have been the same features in Explorer—the click-and-reorder headings at the top of folder views, to give one example. In Exchange—programmed by a different crew than the Windows 95 team—the little headings sported arrows that indicated which direction (ascending or descending) the list was being sorted, for instance. In another example, some parts of Exchange featured toolbars that worked differently from the toolbars in Explorer—and, as anyone who has worked with Windows 95 already knows, the toolbars in Explorer windows cannot be customized at all, unlike the easily altered toolbars in Office applications.
Regardless of how the Explorer-like functions got into Outlook, the resulting software is a godsend for Windows 95 users. Outlook's built-in file-management functions work in a repeatable, easily-understood way, and there are no surprises or disappointments in day-to-day operations as there are in Explorer.
In another big improvement over Office 95, all Office 97 programs have the look and feel of World Wide Web browsers and have browser functions and menus that can be turned on and off with a single click. The most striking example of this is in Word 97, which replaces Word 95. A quick click turns the word processor into an editor for hypertext-coded pages used on the Web, and a click on any Web address in a Word document automatically pulls the remote document at that Web site into a Web browser.
This feature adds immense power to Word and the other programs (Excel, PowerPoint and Access) because it allows them to save documents at a remote location (called "publishing to the Web" in most cases, although documents can be saved to ftp sites also), and lets them open documents located elsewhere, too. This is something Office programs have been able to do for quite some time when used on a network, and so the extension of the concept of a network to the Internet itself comes without any need to learn new techniques.
Word 97 adds a new feature to Word 95's already competent auto-correction system, which underlines words that appear to be misspelled. Word 97 also underlines words, phrases and sentences that appear to contain improper grammar. It also adds a useful pop-up display of AutoText words and phrases while you are typing, so that you'll see what will be inserted when you're using the AutoText function.
(AutoText is one of my favorite features in Word. Highlight a word or phrase—or a section of text of any length—and use the AutoText menu to enter it as the text Word should insert when it encounters a triggering word. For example, you might want to create an AutoText entry for "Sincerely yours," so that it would appear automatically when you typed "sinc" and pressed F3. Word 97 comes with some clever AutoText entries created for you, including "Dear Mom and Dad"—perhaps a hint for college-based Word users to stop diddling with the computer and write a letter home. (Word does not come with an AutoText entry for "Please send another $200," however.)