Office 2007: Should you stay or should you go?

In my column this week I talk about some key concerns IT deployment teams will have with the newly announced Office 2007 (see Microsoft's Sock in the Vacuum). From the individual's perspective, the issues are a bit different.

From the standpoint of corporate IT, the benefits don't necessarily outweigh the challenges of rolling out Microsoft's heavyweight Office client, including the need to support a new file type that's not backward compatible (although a 27MB compatibility filter download is available for some previous versions) and a user interface that may startle and even alienate some users at first - particularly advanced users. Upgrading is inevitable, but the timing is up to IT. You may choose to accelerate it  if you have a need for the new features that enhance collaboration through SharePoint Server. However, I expect that most enterprises will probably hold off for a year or three.

Based on the column, one might come away with the idea that I would hold off personally. That's not that case. While I've found the user interface disconcerting at times, I am one of those users who use 5% of the features most of the time. Occasionally, when I need to do something like a mail merge (which I do about once a year), I need to go out and rediscover how to do that anyway.

I've been clinging to Office 2000 at home (I use Office 2003 at work) and the newer versions have much to recommend them. Compared to the rather painful process used in Office 2000, mail merges are a breeze in Office 2003 and Office 2007. I've had Office 2007 on a test machine alongside my Computerworld issue laptop for a few months now and overall it's easier for me to find what I'm looking for.

On the other hand, I do find the new Open XML format a bit annoying. I need to consciously save files others need to use in classic binary format. Otherwise the document defaults to the new format, which is unreadable to those on older versions of Office - which for me is everyone else. Office 2007 can be set to default to the classic format, but then you can't take full advantage of Office 2007's cool features such as the ability to overlay graphs on a spreadsheet table.

In one case I ended up creating such a table and sending screen images to a recipient for review. The other user wasn't running the compatibility pack - a filter that preserves Office 2007 formatting in the file while presenting a dumbed down version to the user - so I will have to transfer changes to the spreadsheet and possibly reissue it as a PDF (the plug-in for creating PDFs in Office is a separate download, btw) as the final product.

Another irony of the new file format is that while binary files converted to Office 2007's Open XML format are a bit smaller, files saved in compatibility mode can be huge. A 71K spreadsheet I opened in Office 2007 and saved in native Open XML format came in at just 49K- about 30% smaller. But  the same file saved in Office 2007 using the Office 97-2003 format option ballooned to 526K - an increase of more than 600%! If a lot of people choose that option, that's not likely to make the folks managing network storage too happy.

If you don't really use much of Office now, the new user interface is likely to be less disconcerting. And who knows? You might actually find previously unused functions you need more easily. After all, that's the point behind the new user interface.

Then again, if you're content with the 5% of features you use in your current version of Office - and a lot of people fall into this camp - there's probably not much reason to upgrade.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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