Thursday, November 17, 2005

Office 12 first thoughts

Access 12

I'm waiting on a DTS package running on our SQL Server to transform the 2.6 million rows of data one of our clients provided to us, and figured now would be a good time to take a break and post some comments on the new Office 12 beta. After a few hours of timeouts last night trying to connect and download the software from Microsoft's site, I finally managed to get a copy and burn it onto a disc to bring with me to work. The installer was very simple, giving me the standard options of which components to install and had separate tabs to choose whether or not to uninstall any previous versions, change install directories, user name/initials, and other stuff... kind of nice compared to the kludge of the standard single-form installers that you require you to hit "Next >" three dozen times before it actually does any work.

After about 10 minutes, the setup program told me it was done and I fired up Access right away. Within those first five minutes of poking around, I felt like I was going to cry because of all of the neat little features that were now included and how sleek the interface looked. I deal with Access heavily here at work because everything is data-driven and the SQL Server 2000 is probably one of the hardest working components in the company. My front-end database required only one tweak--mostly for my benefit--to use the mouse wheel to scroll through records on a form. Other than that, a few picturebox controls had minor troubles with z-ordering and things felt a little more sluggish than what I have been used to in Access 2002, but all seemed well with the new version.

Excel 12

I moved on to Excel next, loading up my budget without any problems. I added a few recent transactions and adjusted a few numbers for tomorrow's paycheck before moving through some of the new ribbons (Microsoft's term for the panes that are replacing the menus). Something that nagged me while using Access, but didn't become apparent until now were the icons. Most of them were the soft icons using the new Vista theme, but a few were red dot placeholders. A few icons didn't have hi-res versions, so a lower-resolution icon was scaled making it look a bit odd compared to the rest. Hovering over some of the icons also brought up a large help bubble, though not all of the icons have help text yet and some that do have very sparse help messages. Overall, I'm still rather impressed.

Next, I figured I'd try out Word, but I wasn't expecting too big of a shock after seeing the other two apps so far and viewing preview screenshots online from the recent PDC. This was the application that dragged the whole experience down. I am so used to the menus, and as was explained before at the conference there will be a larger-than-normal learning curve. I felt lost and out of place because I couldn't find things... I knew in which menu a certain option was buried, but with the ribbons it just seems like lots of features are missing. My guess is that they are just rolled up into more intuitive options and buttons, but they're just not obviously apparent. Well, how about the built-in help? I hit F1 and a minute later, the help application starts to show up, slowly loading something. When it finally finished, all it could show me was a screen that nagged me to take their survey online. Fiddling with the options, it appears that the help isn't completed (I guess I shouldn't be surprised) and the only available source is the online help over the internet. Unfortunately, that wouldn't work because we're behind a firewall here at work and I couldn't connect. I gave up on the online help and tried to pull up a few documents that all loaded without a problem. Giving myself a few minutes to get used to the interface, I am starting to feel more comfortable with it and realize that it now looks more like a professional desktop publishing application than a word processor.

The final checkmark on the list belongs to Outlook. Wait... where is it? I ran the setup application again to double-check that it was installed, and it showed all of the sub-components were X'ed out. I selected all of them and let setup do its thing once more. I opened my Start Menu and finally there was the familiar yellow clock icon. It showed me a box that made it look like it would import my previous settings, then gave me about three or four error messages before completely bombing out. My guess is that it relies on the other components I didn't download yet including some kind of Office server software. I guess I will need to finish downloading those other components tonight when I get back home before testing this application out.

So all in all, I'm really impressed with what I see so far. It's extremely stable for a beta product and no glaring bugs (that I've noticed anyway) have popped up yet. The whole suite has a very consistent look and feel about it (very fluffy), but the software is still definitely in a pre-release state with its' incomplete icons and features. The interface is definitely not for anyone with a small monitor (less than 17") or using a low resolution (1024x768 or less). I'd like to see more customizing available on the ribbons and an easier method of switching views in Access, otherwise I don't have many gripes about it all yet. I'm sure things will change after more use, though. This is definitely a great start for the next generation of office productivity software. Oh look, my DTS package finally finished running, too! =)

*UPDATE* 11:30PM: I found out that Outlook has more essential subitems under the main subitems in the installer, mainly the library that handles .PST files. Re-selecting and installing this finally got it to work, but I'm disappointed to say that there isn't much difference from the 2003 version so far except a "To-Do Bar" and built-in RSS feed support.


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