As a professional writer of sorts, I spend much of my day in Microsoft Word. Indeed, my familiarity with Word is one of the primary reasons I'm having a hard time adjusting to OneNote, Microsoft's new Office 2003 application for taking and managing notes. I'm not the only one familiar with Word, either: As the oldest Office application, Word can safely be called a mature product, and predictably it hasn't changed dramatically in years. The version of Word that ships as part of Office 2003 is no different: Aside from adopting the new Office 2003-style user interface and task pane, Word doesn't visually differ from previous versions, and in day-to-day use, it's almost identical to Word 2002 (XP), which added the Smart Tags feature on which I now rely.

However, that doesn't mean there isn't anything new in Word 2003. Here are the features I've identified as being both dramatically different from previous versions and important to end users. I've listed them in order of importance to me; your needs may vary.

Reading Layout Mode

In the bad old days, one of the key phases of document creation and collaboration involved printing out the document in question, hand-editing it with a red pen, and then manually re-entering the changes back at the PC later. I can't possibly tell you how many times I've followed these steps over the course of writing over a dozen books, but as Word has matured, and I've become more comfortable with working solely digitally, I've found myself printing book chapters and other documents less, instead choosing to read and edit these documents on-screen.

In Word 2003, this task has been significantly enhanced with a new Reading Layout Mode (Figure), which provides handy single and multiple page layouts for reading and editing documents. My first take on Reading Layout Mode was that it was designed to emulate the read-only Adobe Reader application (previously called Adobe Acrobat Reader), but that's not really the point. That's because you can edit text, and even change styles with a little work, in Reading Layout Mode, tasks that are impossible with Adobe Reader. No, Reading Layout Mode is really designed to stop people from printing out documents for editing. And it works.

What really makes this possible is ClearType. Finally, it's possible to display text on an LCD screen and have it appear as clear and cleanly as printed text on paper. Reading Layout Mode also cuts down on toolbar clutter, optionally displays a thumbnail preview (Figure) or Document Map (Figure) of the various pages in the document, and automatically scales the contents of your document to match the screen. Furthermore, you can toggle between two view styles, which default to single page and two page views. And because this is really an editing mode, Word also lets you utilize its reviewing tools to add comments and make changes.

And somewhat humorously, especially for old-timers such as myself, if you have a Tablet PC, you can write comments and changes directly "on the page" using the tablet's stylus (Figure). This feature alone should make any pen and paper holdouts give it up and go digital. For me. Reading Layout Mode is the new Smart Tags: A feature that sounded interesting, but now I find myself using it constantly, especially in the development of long-form books. I'm not as productive without it.

Style Locking

One of the books I'm working on now is an educational title that's seen several editions and is now being extensively updated to keep it up-to-date with the latest technology advances. The problem is that the copy we got back was horribly formatted, and I've spent hundreds of hours formatting the source documents and producing clean copy that represents the previous edition. Then, we work off of those documents to create the chapters for the next edition. Originally, I was using Microsoft Office v. X on a 17-inch iMac to produce these clean, new chapters. But a new feature in Word 2003 caused me to switch right back to Windows. Called Style Locking, this feature lets me, as the "style creator," lock styles so that future revisions can mess with the text, but not with the styles. Here's how it works.

First, you have to turn on the Protect Document task pane (Figure), which provides a handy three-step wizard-like user interface for locking styles and performing other related tasks (Word also lets you arbitrarily lock portions of documents too, which I've not found any use for personally). Then, you check the box titled "Limit formatting to a selection of styles." Then, you click the Settings link, which displays the Formatting Restrictions dialog box (Figure); here, you can prevent any co-workers from adding or changing styles, or from using styles outside of the range you select. This has allowed me to effectively remove the long range of bizarre styles from previous editions without laboriously removing them by hand as I would with previous Word versions.

In step two of the task pane, you can actually specify which formatting editing rights other users have (Figure), though I've pretty much just used the default, which is "No changes (Read only)." There's also an exceptions list, though I can't really use this feature as the people I'm collaborating with aren't working together with me in an office.

On a related side note, my enforcement of styles is really just designed to prevent me from messing things up later: None of the people I'm working with use Office 2003, and previous Office versions (including those on the Mac) don't enforce these formatting restrictions anyway. Sigh. Still, it's a nice way for me to ensure that my actual editing of chapter content won't introduce extraneous style types, as had been the case previously.

Native support for Digital Ink

I'm not really a Tablet PC fan per se, especially since the first generation devices are lacking in several key areas, primarily battery life and performance. But digital ink is a cool feature, one that Microsoft doesn't get enough credit for. During a Mobility Road Show I participated in earlier this year, I was impressed by how well untrained tablets understood my handwriting. It's amazing technology.

If you are more comfortable editing documents with a pen, Word 2003's native support for digital ink might be a compelling reason to consider a Tablet PC. On a recent business trip to Redmond, I actually had occasion to use this feature for the first time in a real-world situation (i.e. one that was actually a spur-of-the-moment, hey-this-really-would-work-better-with-a-stylus kind of things): In a meeting with a product group, one of the Microsofties started drawing a diagram on the whiteboard and there I was, a prodigious note-taker, unable to duplicate the diagram with just text. But I was using a Tablet PC, so I whipped out the stylus, flipped the keyboard around, and wrote it down (Figure, and yes, this is my original notes). Nice.

This feature represents one of the two ways in which you might use digital ink with Word 2003. The other is to use Word's reviewing features to add comments and edits to Word document, just as I used to do with a red pen when I edited documents by hand (as noted above). Honestly, I would never do this to someone else, and I'm begging my editors not to do it to me. But I could see people getting into it.

Native support for XML

Word's support for XML isn't designed to let individuals save as XML instead of in Word's proprietary format, though I suspect some people are actually looking forward to this feature in order to do just that. The problem with saving as XML is that the resulting documents are much, much larger than the standard Word Doc equivalents. But then individuals who choose to save as XML probably have other issues they need to work through that are more pressing than that little issue.

The real reason Microsoft supports industry-standard XML natively in Word 2003 is that large companies are beginning to standardize on XML as a data delivery mechanism. But until recently, few client-side tools natively supported this technology, and certainly no office productivity applications of Word's stature did so. Data stored in XML can be used, or consumed, by a variety of applications, servers, and services. And that's wonderful, from a workflow perspective. But it's even more wonderful now that the world's most popular document creation application now supports the creation of standard XML data. This means content creators don't have to learn a new tool to be more productive in this connected world we now live in.

I don't actually have any need to use Word's XML features, and certainly XML is a technical topic worthy of separate articles and books. But Word's native support for XML will likely be one of the reasons many corporations choose to upgrade to this Office version, and it will likely be a catalyst for the continued sales of everyone's favorite word processor.

Final thoughts

People find it inexplicably easy to make fun of the stability of Microsoft's products, but Word is a perfect example of what the company does well. It's a mature product that rarely crashes, and almost never loses any data, even when it does crash. I'm not sure what more you could ask from such an application. Word does virtually everything I need it to do, and well, and on those occasions when I've evaluated competing software such as OpenOffice.org or StarOffice, the transition is more painful than you might expect, and I'm eager to return to the comforts of Word. Part of the reason is that I'm just so used to Word and the way it works. Part of it is that Word still continues to out-feature the competition, and when you combine that fact with its stability, guaranteed compatibility, and performance, choosing Word really is a no-brainer. I spend a significant portion of my day in Word, every day, and it's time I don't dread or wish I could spend elsewhere. As a constant companion to this writer, Word 2003 is the ultimate word processor on any platform.

Word 2003 will be available as part of Microsoft Office and as a standalone product in October 2003.