Office 97 has arrived, with features both useful and annoying

BATTEN DOWN the hard drive! Microsoft Office 97 has arrived -- with a bag of new features even bigger than the usual upgrade. Many are useful and potentially important, like a cornucopia of options involving hypertext and the Internet. But pesky cartoon critters descended from the late and unlamented Microsoft Bob get in the way.

To accommodate the improvements, Microsoft has adopted an entirely new set of file formats that older versions of Office and other programs cannot read. The likely upshot? A nationwide blizzard of e-mail and phone calls involving variants of the question, "How come I can't open that file you just sent me?"


Although work-arounds are available, the New Look files are bound to produce unpleasant fallout, as I found out at 30,000 feet after transferring one to my laptop machine running Office 95.

Office 97 will initially come in two versions. Standard, at about $200 for an upgrade from virtually anything fancier than a pencil, includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint and a new jack of many trades called Outlook, along with dozens of extras including Internet Explorer 3.01 and a program called Microsoft Camcorder that lets you record what you see on the screen.


For $100 more, the Professional version throws in the Access xTC database and Bookshelf's dictionary, thesaurus and quotations. I tested every single feature.

Well, not quite. Office 97 is a Leviathan of a program that in a "typical" installation requires more than 120 megabytes of hard disk space. Offering to sell your soul to the devil provided you could first finish examining Office's every nook and cranny would lead to a long, long life. In a space smaller than a single help page, it is all a hapless reviewer can do to record a few general impressions.

The new Office Assistant feature offers something Office has never had before: a help facility that makes reasonable guesses about what you might be looking for in a particular situation. Unfortunately, that help is presented solely in the form of dialogue balloons attached to one of eight cartoon characters, most of which make irrelevant, distracting movements and sounds until you turn them off.

But these toon-zombies are as insistent on popping up again as Wile E. Coyote.

If you want to use certain functions, such as the sometimes helpful natural-language search function introduced in Office 95, or get certain special information, such as expanded examples of grammatical errors, you must turn on the cartoon channel. Unless customers insist that Microsoft exorcise the ghost of the undead Bob, customized cartoons (perhaps a jittery version of your company's logo) may one day be your only route to help.

Before you upgrade to Office 97 from a previous version, make notes about the options you have customized. The program may not transfer them, and you may have to restore them by hand. You may also have to correct Start Menu shortcuts that point to files that no longer exist.

The printed manuals are skinny, and most on-screen tutorials have been abandoned. Read the help information on new features, or risk missing them entirely.

Some of the most useful improvements are little things, such as the character counter in Word that finally takes account of spaces. You can set up Word to save all versions of your document in one file and let you step back to retrieve material you might have otherwise discarded, though the file may grow to unwieldy size. After making decent guesses about the most important sentences in a file, the new auto-summarizer can highlight them or save them separately. Excel can correct such common errors as omitted parentheses. A new set of drawing tools may prove handy. You can run your Web browser from a little bar that appears inside the Office applications. Hypertext links are easy to insert into documents, though I found a bug in the process.


And then there is the all-new Outlook. It includes a calendar, a contact list, a file manager, a journal that keeps track of the time you have spent using Office applications, virtual sticky notes you can post on the screen and much more.

The e-mail software appears to be a great improvement over what comes with Windows; it includes such amenities as the ability to display the first three lines of mail so you can scan messages before you open them.

The forward and back buttons, missing from the other applications, suggest that Outlook may eventually be integrated into the browser-like look of forthcoming versions of Windows. But like most initial releases of Microsoft products, this one has a confusing interface and lots of rough edges. In the monthly view, the calendar visually truncates entries rather than fitting them into the space available. The file manager is inferior to Windows Explorer. The sticky notes cannot be made to appear on top of other applications. The journal reports how long you had a program loaded, but not whether you actually used it.

With a huge new program such as Office 97, bugs and annoyances are all but inevitable, and things you are used to may well have changed. An apparent improvement in the way Word stores revision information, for example, appears to introduce irritating editing problems I had rarely encountered in the previous version. The Microsoft Corp. tends to be reasonably quick to post information about known problems on its Web site, so before you sell your soul to Office 97, you may want to use the sin of procrastination to find out what devils lurk in the details.

Pub Date: 1/20/97