In-Depth

Word 2007: Not Exactly a Must-Have

Some sing its praises, but compatibility problems and the new interface leave others cold.

Microsoft rolled out Office 2007 with huge fanfare last fall. So far, though, most users can only come up with one or two new features they like. For most, those features fall short of convincing them to upgrade to the new version.

For one thing, Word 2007 uses the entirely new ribbon interface. Power users say it takes too much time and patience to learn. Couple that with the fact that its new format makes it difficult to share documents with those using earlier versions of Word, and most say they'll wait to upgrade.

"People will get used to the new interface, but at major efforts in time, training and cost," says Mike McCullough, director of systems at Cooling Systems Technologies (CST) Inc., a parts manufacturing company in Mount Carmel, Ill.

When McCullough switched one of his WordPerfect users over to Word 2003 years ago, the interfaces were similar and she got up to speed fairly quickly. When it came time to move her from 2003 to 2007, he quickly ran into problems. "I might as well of hit her over the head with a bat," he says. "I could see anger and frustration."

He expects his experience won't be unique. "Companies are spending money just getting the new [2007] product in the first place, but now you have to pay someone to sit there and show people how to use it," he says. "And not everyone learns at the same speed. Even after that, it's a lot of hand-holding to get people to learn new things."

The new interface takes away from a major selling factor for Word -- its ease of use. "That's why everyone uses Word -- because everyone knows exactly where everything is," says Phil Collett, IT manager at Citrus Motors, a car dealership in Ontario, Calif. "But this interface is such a shock, it's like having to learn a whole new program. In fact, if people were looking to go to something open source, like StarOffice or OpenOffice, this would be the perfect time. It's no different than learning the new Word."

McCullough agrees. "There are 100 million users who understand the old interface. And now they introduce a brand new interface for what, 10 people?" he says. "It's not worth it."

What's New in Word 2007

Though not enough to inspire them to upgrade, readers like these key new features of Word 2007 the best:

Preview: The ability to hover the mouse over selected text and view font changes and style changes is a definite plus, say readers. "Preview is amazing," says Steve Hohman, IT director for Gray Information Solutions Inc. "I can hover over the style and it will change what I've highlighted before I even click to save it."

Format painter: Instead of going to a different menu item or toolbar, every format option is within the ribbon. "All those little tools you normally use are right there, including formatting for your fonts, your size, your format painter, bold, italic and underline," Hohman says. "It's all there, instead of having to jump back up the top and take it off the toolbar. It's much faster."

Grammar and spell check: Both of these features are now much more unobtrusive, which makes them more user-friendly, says Mike McCullough, director of systems at Cooling Systems Technologies Inc. Hohman says the spell check is especially improved because it can more easily discern typing mistakes, and the grammar check is more useful. "Now, it's also taking a look at context to see where maybe you'd be better off using this word instead of that one," he says. "It's more helpful." -J.C.

New and Improved
Other readers feel it's worth taking the time to learn the new interface. Once you do, they say, it actually makes creating professional-looking documents much easier for the average user.

Steve Hohman, IT director for Gray Information Solutions Inc. in Spring Hill, Fla., likes 2007's ribbon interface because it makes features that he wasn't even aware existed in 2003 easier to find and use. "The reference ribbon is amazing," he says, noting that he writes a lot of research papers and he can use that to create source references and easily add citations. "I go into my paper, click one button and say insert citation," he says. "It goes right into the document in the right format. I can do the same thing to insert a footnote or insert an endnote."

The ribbon interface also makes it easier for him to use cross-references to link a table of contents or a table of figures with references in a document. "If I move a figure inside the document and it goes from page five to six, that automatically updates in the table of contents," he says. "It makes managing your references and managing your tables and indexes much easier. These are all things you probably could do in 2003, but you didn't see it because it wasn't in front of your face on a ribbon."

Readers also like Word 2007's SmartArt graphics. This capability helps them create tables and graphics within Word. In the past, Hohman says he would create shapes and figures in Visio, then import them into Word. "They would come over well, but they didn't format or match the style I was using in my document," he says. With SmartArt, Hohman says he just has to create the diagrams in Word and everything matches.

"SmartArt is especially great if you're doing presentations, putting together a proposal or some sort of document that would benefit from any type of chart or diagram," he says. "It looks so professional and it's so easy to put in that it's just a matter of picking what shape looks best to you and putting in the text. Then you can change the colors, the 3-D look, rotate it and plant it right where you want. It's easy."

Format Formalities
The standard Word 2007 file format is no longer the well-known .DOC format. It's now the new XML-based .DOCX format. The change makes it difficult to collaborate and share documents with users of earlier versions of Word, but readers see how the new format could ease document sharing in the future.

In order to share documents with 2003 users, 2007 users must use a "Save As" command instead of a simple "Save." This adds an extra step to sharing documents with earlier versions. "It's a pain to downgrade and save as 2003," Collett says. "You have to teach people on 2007 to do that so people with earlier versions can use it. Sometimes people forget."

Others agree and note that some 2007 functionality is lost during the conversion for earlier Word versions. "I do a lot of schoolwork in 2007, but school uses 2003 and I have to down-convert my documents to 2003," Collett says. "One thing I lose when I do that is SmartArt. I may not be able to adjust it or change the shape or color of the object."

CST's McCullough says he downloaded a free Compatibility Pack program from Microsoft's Web site that lets 2003 users save their documents in 2007 format. "It upgrades 2003 to 2007 file formats, so I can actually continue to use 2003 and interchange my documents with 2007," McCullough says. "It saves everything in the new format."

It's a bit slower than a regular 2003 save, he says. "But what's neat is that it's interchangeable, so if you want to maintain this new .DOCX standard, you don't need to buy 2007 for everyone."

McCullough says he's interested in the new XML format for its promise of easy reuse. For example, if someone embeds a .JPG image within a Word 2007 document, you can easily share and reuse that image. It retains its .JPG format and isn't locked within the Word document.

"Now we can pull these pictures out of documents for whatever purposes and reuse them," he says. It also makes it easier to conduct searches on individual portions of a Word document. "We can do much improved searches on text within documents than we've ever been able to do before," he says. "I can see why Microsoft did that."

One feature that some users consider reason enough to switch is Word 2007's ability to save documents as PDFs. This is another key method of easing document sharing. To use the PDF feature, download a free add-in from Microsoft's Web site. Once you've downloaded and installed the add-in, it does work well.

"How many of us paid good money for a PDF converter?" says Hohman. "Now, you can download this for free and save as a PDF. And there are no conversion errors I've found yet. I've converted documents with formulas, equations and it all comes over nice and clear."

Microsoft Word 2007

Slow Change
Even a fan of Word 2007 like Hohman admits that it will be some time before everyone makes the change. This is especially true since most of his firm's customers are still on Word 2003. "A lot of our clients can't upgrade because they're being told that their applications can't support 2007 yet," he says.

For now, most are trying out the new Word on their own PC, but not yet rolling it out companywide.

More Information

To download a free Compatibility Pack program from Microsoft that lets 2003 users save their documents in 2007 format, go here. To use the PDF feature, you have to download a free add-in from Microsoft (see here).
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