I have spent a large chunk of my computing life in Microsoft Office. As a teacher, I think it’s hard to avoid. Tools like Word, PowerPoint and Excel form a sizable basis of the sorts of tools we use every day to create and present stuff to our kids. I even have a few “qualifications” in Office, from a bunch of Brainbench certificates, to an International Computer Driving Licence, and even a few units from the Microsoft Office Specialist certification program. I mean, if you’re going to spend a lot of time in these apps, you may as well know how to use them properly, right?
I recently had to create a few teaching resources using Microsoft Office 2007. Office 07 is a fairly radical rethink of the interface for the Office suite. The trouble with previous versions of Office is that they had so many features and tools that most users never found them. Many were buried so deep in the interface that the average user simply never stumbled across them. I even had an semi-heated discussion with a guy at a technology trade show once who was telling me that certain features would be really neat to have in Excel, and when I told him that everything he was wanting was already there, he argued back that I was wrong… these tools simply didn’t exist in Excel. I showed him, he was amazed that he had overlooked them. even though he considered himself a “power user”, he had never found some of these must-have features, some of which I thought were pretty obvious. After I showed him they were there, he was a happy camper again.
So the goal in Office 07 was to bring as many of the available tools right out to the front of the interface. That’s a big ask, since there are literally hundreds of tools and features in there, and while there will still be people who criticise the new interface for being too cluttered, too different to the previous versions, too whatever, I must say I think they’ve done a pretty good job of taming a rather big animal. I found the new Office easy to learn (though I will confess to being a power user of Office software to start with) and the new Ribbon UI seemed pretty intuitive to me. I’m really looking forward to see what they do with the Mac version…
The only thing about Office that is irksome is the price. At around AUD$1150 for a full copy, it’s just way too overpriced, and it is little wonder that piracy is such a huge problem in the home market. Fortunately, there is a Student and Teacher edition (which is basically the same as the full version) that can be had for a few hundred dollars, and there is even a promotion happening at the moment over at It’s Not Cheating, where Australian university students can buy a copy for only $75. Not a bad deal, and probably well worth it for a clear, piracy-free, conscience. Makes you wonder about the sort of profit margins in the software though when you see these sorts of discounts being offered. I guess Bill became the worlds richest person for a reason…
The other interesting development in the Office space is Google’s recent announcement to add a presentation module to the already existing word processor and spreadsheet modules in Google Docs. Sure, it won’t have all the bells and whistles that MS Office has, but like I said, most users never use the more advanced features anyway. For the majority of users, if they can type and format a document, calculate some numbers or keep a list in a spreadsheet, and do a basic presentation for an audience, that’s most of their computing needs right there. Add in the Gmail and Google calendar features, and Google Docs is starting to look like an interesting proposition. It also has two nice extra features… it can enable online collaboration on documents, and of course it is free. Free is good. Free is hard to beat. At school, we just renewed our Microsoft licensing agreement for the year and it cost us about $18,000. That’s every year. As I say, free is good, and Google Docs is starting to look very attractive, especially now you can even brand it with your own domain name using Google Apps for your Domain. I’m sure Open Office and some of the other open source office stuff is also worth a more serious look these days.
The downside of Google Docs of course is that it requires a user to be online all the time, with a fairly fast connection if it is to be at all usable. But that’s becoming more the norm, and is probably not a big issue. The flip side of that is that it makes all your documents available online, anywhere, anytime, which can certainly be a good thing in a Web 2.0 world.
For me, I will keep using Office for now because I do tend to regularly tap into many of its more advanced features. But I can see a day in the not too distant future where even I might start to seriously rethink my attitude to the alternatives.
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