With Office, of course, it all comes down to the applications. Different people use different Office applications, while almost completely ignoring others. Some are Excel wizards, while others seem to know the ins and outs of Word better than anyone at Microsoft. My Office usage has changed a bit over the years--after utilizing the text editor in FrontPage regularly over the years, for example, I've had to move on since Microsoft removed that application from its suites, and OneNote has been a happy new surprise over the past few years. Today, I tend towards applications like Word and Outlook on a very regular basis, followed by OneNote and then PowerPoint for the odd presentation or Web seminar. Your requirements, of course, may be completely different. So I'll try to provide a decent roundup of the most-often used Office applications and note how they've changed--for better or worse--in Office 2007.

Word

As a writer, I spend much of my day in Microsoft Word, and I've grown so accustomed to the small subset of its functionality that I usually use that I often view this application as a text processor that was custom-made only for my particular needs. Interestingly, the ability to hide the Ribbon and customize the new Quick Access Toolbar have made this even more true in Word 2007: I can now easily hide all of the features I rarely use and expose only those few features I need regularly. Neat.

But Word is, of course, far more complex and feature-packed than my simple needs suggest. For typical PC users, Word 2007's new Ribbon-based UI exposes the most-commonly used features in its Home tab, which you'll see by default when you launch Word or double-click a Word document in the Windows shell. Here, you'll find commands related to the system clipboard, fonts, paragraphs, styles, and editing. If all you're doing is editing text, this is probably over 90 percent of what you'll ever use, and it's all available up front and center.

Word, of course, accommodates any need, and and any user. The Insert tab lets you insert such disparate things as tables, page breaks, pictures, charts, headers and footers, and symbols. The Page Layout tab provides access to your document's margins, the number of columns, and indenting and spacing attributes of individual paragraphs. And so on: As you move through the Ribbon's tab set, you'll find logical arrangements of commands, and new tabs, like Picture Tools - Format, will appear when you add new objects to your documents. It's all quite logical, though a little ponderous if you regularly need a single command that's available on a secondary tab (thus the Quick Access Toolbar, I guess).

Word 2007 picks up the new common art, charting and diagraming features that now appear in various other Office applications, including Excel and PowerPoint; previously, each application provided its own unique graphics functionality. (This inefficiency was due, no doubt, to the fact that these applications were originally developed in isolation from each other.) But Word isn't limited to just pretty new graphics: You can now nicely style text and text styles using the new Quick Styles palette, and even switch quickly between pre-made and customizable Style Sets which are also common between various Ribbonized applications. Word 2007 for the first time in, well, forever, includes a nice looking new default style set. But if you want something approximating the default style set found in Office 95 through Office 2003, you can change to the Office 2003 style set. You can even make it the default.

Using an optional but freely downloadable update, you can use the Save As command to save Word documents in Adobe PDF or Microsoft XPS (XML Paper Specification) formats. This is incredibly useful, especially the PDF bit: Previously, you would need Adobe's curiously expensive Acrobat software or a commercial or downloadable utility to convert Word documents to PDF. Sadly, Word can't be used to edit PDF files, however, even those saved from within Word.

For professional writers and office workers who regularly collaborate with others, a new document comparison feature makes it easier than ever to compare two versions of a single document side-by-side. What's really cool is that this enables synchronized scrolling by default, so you're always in the same part of the document in both windows. Nice!

Finally, Word 2007 features an interesting, if somewhat hidden, Web log (blog) publishing and posting feature. Accessed via Publish - Blog in the new Office menu, this feature takes the current document, formats it as a blog post, and opens it in a new window. That window includes a Blog Post tab from which you can further edit the document or publish it (in draft or final form) to Windows Live Spaces, Blogger, Windows SharePoint Services 3.0, Community Server, TypePad, or WordPress. Curiously, this feature doesn't take the first Heading 1 in a document and use it as the blog post title, as you'd want. I'm not too excited by the default formatting of paragraph breaks either, but you can of course edit the thing easily. It's still Word, after all.

Excel

I can't claim to be a heavy Excel user (though, curiously, I did co-author an Excel book back in, oh, 1995 or so). However, Excel 2007 has been dramatically updated compared to previous versions and should prove to be a watershed version of this impressive productivity tool. Here's what's new.

First, a dramatic enhancement that makes Excel more powerful: Excel 2007 now supports spreadsheets with up to 1 million rows and 16,000 columns, a massive improvement over the previous version, which supported 65,536 rows and 256 columns.

The Excel charting engine has been significantly enhanced and can create gorgeous 3D charts of virtually any kind, complete with shadows and other professional effects. Best of all, these charts are now shared between Word and PowerPoint as well, for consistent results. That's smart, and it's about time.

Excel's support for tables is greatly enhanced. Now, you can easily create, edit, and manipulate tables, and when you scroll down, the table headings stay in place automatically: No more looking for that obscure table freeze function.

Excel spreadsheets can be managed online via the new Excel Services on Windows SharePoint Server 2007 and any Web browser. This feature, which is obviously oriented towards businesses, allows users without Excel to manipulate and access Excel-based data, dramatically expanding the reach of this mission critical tool. Excel also supports SQL Server Analysis Services, providing Excel users with ways to easily access database-based data sets and perform business intelligence and data mining operations.

PowerPoint

Back in the mid-1990's, when I was working at a community college in Scottsdale, Arizona, there was a saying floating around that there were those who could do, and those who could do PowerPoint. The dig there was that PowerPoint was a tool for those who were better at speaking about computer tools than actually implementing them. That memory, combined with widespread questions about the "PowerPointization" of corporate (and even educational) America, where all thoughts, theses, and recommendations must somehow be warped to fit a fixed set of bullet points required by the limitations of a PC-based presentation, have colored my view of this powerful and useful application. That said, I've often had to employ PowerPoint, and these days, it's a necessary part of my arsenal whenever I give in-person or Web-based presentations.

No surprise, but PowerPoint 2007 is the most impressive version of this tool yet. The new version includes a wealth of useful features, but as a humble (and let's face it, pretty unsophisticated) PowerPoint user myself, I would like to point out a simple change that has made all the difference in the world: PowerPoint 2007 includes a new and more professional set of themes--sets of predefined backgrounds, fonts, and colors--that are dramatically better than anything offered in previous versions. In fact, the default themes are so good, I actually enjoy using some of them with no editing at all. (You can see an example in my Windows Vista Security Explained presentation if you're interested.)

PowerPoint also picks up the suite-wide improvements to the now standardized SmartArt, WordArt, and chart features. SmartArt lets you add professional looking graphical diagrams, complete with 3D effects, shadows, glossy sheens, and numerous styles. WordArt, meanwhile, is for creating graphical text, which also can feature 3D effects and shadows. PowerPoint's charts come straight out of Excel land with a variety of templates and styles. These features, like shapes, photos and other pictures, and other objects, are logically added via the new Insert tab. Combined with the previously-mentioned new themes and the simpler Ribbon-based UI, PowerPoint 2007 is an ideal presentation tool, even for beginners.

While PowerPoint 2007 still includes the ability to publish slide decks to a CD or hard drive-based location, creating a standalone version of the presentation that can be viewed with Microsoft's viewer software, the new version also features PDF and XPS exporting, like Word. This way, you can easily export your presentations in formats that are easily printed and viewed by your audience, even if they're using a non-Windows system.

Finally, PowerPoint 2007 also includes an improved version of Presenter View (on the Slide Show tab) that lets you easily access your speaker timings and notes on your laptop's internal display while the actual presentation is beamed to an external display such as a projector. It's good stuff, and now it's much easier to find and use.

Outlook

In Office 2003, Microsoft paid special attention to Outlook, providing an incredibly useful three pane view that's since been copied--badly, as it turns out--in every email application imaginable, from Mozilla Thunderbird to Windows Mail (the latter of which is included in Windows Vista). Perhaps this is why Outlook 2007 is such a minor improvement. A bizarre halfway house between the Ribbonized apps in Office 2007 and the file-and-menu morass of the past, Outlook 2007 is still a first-class email and personal information management solution. It's just that Microsoft has done nothing to fix some problems that have dogged Outlook for years, and I find its mix of Ribbon and non-Ribbon UIs to be confusing, ugly, and incomplete.

The main Outlook window--what you'd think of as the Outlook application itself--has not been Ribbonized. Instead, it retains the same tired menu-and-toolbar UI that's graced Outlook since its inception a decade ago. This main window has been otherwise updated, however. Now, it utilizes a four-pane UI by default. This UI is particularly well-suited to widescreen displays, as you'll need a bit of horizontal real estate to use it effectively. The new, fourth, and rightmost pane is the To-Do Bar and it can be minimized or disabled if you don't have the space. I find it quite useful: The To-Do Bar is essentially a miniature and always present version of the old Outlook Today screen (which is still available too). It provides an at-a-glance view of the current month and your upcoming appointments and tasks by default. (If you resize it, you can view more than a single month at a time.) In minimized mode, you get only your next pending appointment and task, which is still handy but takes up a lot less space.

Confusingly, you see the Ribbon in Outlook's sub-windows. Click the New Mail button, for example, and you'll be presented with a Ribbonized window that includes Message, Insert, Options, and Format Text tabs. Other sub-windows provide similar Ribbons. New Appointment, for example, includes Appointment, Insert, and Format Text.

Here's the thing. While I generally like the Ribbon a lot, I find its use in Outlook to be inconsistent and jarring. While the old New Mail button from previous Outlook versions featured a prominent Send button in the upper left corner, the use of the Ribbon in Outlook 2007 pushes this crucial bit of UI down. Now, the even bigger Paste button, which appears in the far left the New Mail window's default Ribbon, occupies that position, and more than once I've clicked it by mistake. It's irritating, and on these subwindows, especially, I'd like to see a way for the Ribbon to be made to take up less space. It's just too big for a New Mail window.

Further problematic is that Outlook 2007 includes numerous bugs that were present in previous versions, though I communicated a list of these problems to the Office team on at least two different occasions. And some features are just missing in action this time around. For example, Outlook 2003 includes a way to enable a Views display in the application window itself, so you don't have to navigate around Outlook's convoluted menus to switch views. It's gone in Outlook 2007. Combined with the half-baked Ribbonization, these problems combine to make me believe that Outlook got less attention than it should have in this release. And that's too bad.

Problems aside, Outlook does pick up some very useful new features. The most obvious is the new Instant search functionality, available via a handy and obvious Search box that's located right at the top of each Outlook experience (Mail, Calendar, Tasks, Contacts, and so on). Instant Search, unlike the curiously broken Find feature from previous Outlook versions, actually works, and its filtering feature works intuitively. If you're not running Windows Vista, however, you'll need to download a Windows Desktop Search utility first to use this feature.

Outlook also picks up RSS (Real Simple Syndication) capabilities and will automatically integrate with the RSS functionality from Internet Explorer 7 if you've installed that browser in XP or are running Windows Vista. There's some debate about whether RSS makes more sense from an email application or a Web browser, but if you're running both Outlook and IE 7 your feeds will synchronize automatically between the two and you pick your favorite. When you subscribe to RSS feeds, they appear below the new RSS Feeds entry in your Personal Folders alongside your email inbox and other mail-related folders.

Overall, Outlook 2007 is a frustrating upgrade, because it's good but could be some much more. I'd really like to see what a fully Ribbonized Outlook looks like. My guess is that future versions of the Ribbon UI will be more mature and allow for better customization, making Outlook, finally, a first class Ribbon-based applications. We'll have to wait and see about that, of course.

OneNote

Customers who opt for the low-priced Office Home and Student Edition 2007 (which replaces Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003) will be surprised to discover that OneNote replaces Outlook in that version of the suite. This is interesting for a few reasons, mostly in that this marks the first time that OneNote is being made available in a volume version of Office. But the decision to showcase OneNote rather than Outlook in a version of the suite that is aimed mostly at students is probably a good one. (Besides, you can pick up Outlook separately if you really need it.) And as fans of the previous versions of OneNote (2003 and 2003 SP1, the latter of which was a major upgrade) might expect, OneNote 2007 is a winner. But no, this application hasn't been Ribbonized, though I suspect that such a change would work wonderfully in OneNote.

What we do get this time around is a bunch of evolutionary improvements that make OneNote feel like a much more mature application. A new Navigation Bar, located in the left side of the application window and resembling the Outlook To-Do Bar, lets you easily access your open notebooks (see below). Unlike the Outlook To-Do Bar, the OneNote Navigation Bar is minimized by default: When you expand it, you'll see a nicely-organized list of all of your notebooks.

As implied above, OneNote now supports multiple notebooks (finally). This allows for further levels of organizational opportunities and frees users from the folder-based organizational scheme required by previous versions.

OneNote picks up the Instant Search functionality from Outlook. I've never been a huge fan of the way OneNote searches, but at least now it's quick, and you can search across multiple notebooks.

While OneNote previously supported shared notebooks, that capability is more elegant and useable in OneNote 2007, which makes it much easier for a single user to maintain notes between, say, a notebook PC and a desktop PC, or for a user to share notes with others. Shared notebooks can reside on a central server in an organization as well, which makes them suddenly useful in businesses. Changes to remote notebooks can be automatically synchronized with this local master, as you'd expect. I can't say that I have much use for this personally, but it will make OneNote a more viable solution in corporate settings, expanding its target market dramatically. Good move.

I was in love with OneNote the second I saw it, but as a heavy user, I've also developed a wish list of needed features. Some have been answered in this release (while others, like notebook locking, which could prevent future edits or deletes to archive notes, have not). One is in-note hyperlinks that link to notes elsewhere, be they in other notebooks or folders, other drives, or PCs, or Web locations. OneNote 2007 adds this useful feature, allowing you to logically jump around notes in a way that's been available in hypermedia solutions since the late 1980s. Back and Forward buttons in the Standard toolbar work just like those in a Web browser.

OneNote 2007 features basic table features, making it possible for the first time to work with tabular data sets. It's not as sophisticated as what's available in Word, let alone Excel, but it's exactly what you'd need in a note-taking environment.

Like other Office 2007 applications, OneNote supports exporting to PDF and XPS formats, which is a nice data sharing feature. There is also a OneNote Mobile application for Windows Mobile-based smart phones, letting you share notes and recordings made from these portable devices with your PC-based note taking solution. Synchronization is two-way, too, so you can push your notes to the device as well.

Finally, a new Full Page View, available via a conspicuous button to the right of OneNote's menu, lets you use the application in a minimal UI mode, where everything but your notes and the Standard and Formatting toolbars are hidden. This is similar to the Hide Ribbon functionality in Ribbonized Office applications and is, I suspect, a temporary solution until OneNote is Ribbonized. It's a nice feature, and one that heavy note takers will likely appreciate.

Other Office applications

Obviously, Office is a lot more than the five applications I've discussed above. That said, I'll need more time before I can say anything concrete about other applications, or even the Office-based servers I'm currently evaluating. Here, however, is a rundown of the other Office 2007 offerings.

Microsoft Office Access 2007
Microsoft's desktop database solution is Ribbonized for 2007 and, for the first time in years, dramatically improved. In fact, Access is the poster child, in many ways, for the Ribbon, since it is the one application that quite clearly never benefitted from Microsoft's earlier push to make the menus and toolbars in all Office applications as similar as possible. After years of declining usage,

Microsoft Office Communicator
This new enterprise-class instant messaging solution in Office 2007 provides instant messaging, voice, and video communications services in a snappy little application that should eventually give Windows Live Messenger and other IM solutions a run for their money, especially in IM-shy businesses. The big advantages of Communicator are its presence support, integration with corporate address books and directories, and integration with Microsoft Office 2007 applications like Outlook.

Microsoft Office Groove 2007
New to Office 2007, Groove is a peer-to-peer collaboration solution that was previously sold as Groove Virtual Office. Groove works with Groove Server 2007 to allow information works to collaborate with others inside of managed environments and on the outside.

Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007
InfoPath is an electronic forms solution that first appeared in Office 2003. Now, InfoPath also integrates with new InfoPath Forms Services capabilities in Office SharePoint Server 2007, as well as other Office applications like Outlook, which can be used to deliver forms to other users.

Microsoft Office Project Standard and Professional 2007
Available in desktop and enterprise-class desktop versions, Project is a project management solution. There is also an Office Project Server 2007, which integrates with Office SharePoint Server 2007 and SQL Server 2000 SP4/2005.

Microsoft Office Publisher 2007
Microsoft's desktop publishing solution features new, professional-looking templates and a browsable template pane, a Content Library for reusing publication assets, and PDF and XPS exporting capabilities, for increased compatibility with print shops.

Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007
New to Office 2007, this application replaces Microsoft FrontPage but appears to be virtually identical and targets SharePoint-based sites. A companion product, Microsoft Expression Web Designer, closely resembles SharePoint Designer but provides Web standards-based tools and capabilities.

Microsoft Office Visio Standard and Professional 2007
Available in both desktop and enterprise-class version, Visio is a business and technical diagramming solution. The new versions feature redesigned templates and template categories, new themes, an AutoConnect feature for connecting shapes, and SharePoint integration.

Final thoughts

Fans of Office--and yes, there are such people out there--understand that Microsoft has guided this complicated set of increasingly interrelated products from evolutionary update to evolutionary update over the past decade or so. Now, I've described Office 2007 as a major, revolutionary update, thanks largely to its new Ribbon-based user interface and, to a lesser extent, its new XML-based file formats. Once you look past these major new changes, however, the actual Office applications have received only the same evolutionary updates that we've come to expect from previous Office suites. And this is as it should be: The Office applications, ultimately, are a very mature set of products, especially when you consider just the "core" and long-lived applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Microsoft has made greater strides making existing functionality easier to find and use than it has in adding major new functionality in Office 2007. But that's great: We've finally got a version of Office where virtually anyone can master its impressive feature set if they so desire.