Software: A new Office romance

David Fox reviews Microsoft's Mac-loving Office 98 program

APPLICATIONS THAT repair themselves if any essential components are damaged or deleted, and a help icon with attitude, are two of the most appealing aspects of the latest version of Microsoft Office. More interestingly, Office 98 is only available for the Apple Macintosh; these and many other neat features won't appear on Windows until Office 2000, the first beta of which has just been released, although it won't appear in the shops until next year.

Only a year ago Bill Gates was roundly booed when he was introduced by satellite to the crowds at MacWorld Expo. But, at last month's event in New York, there were cheers when Apple's Steve Jobs mentioned the "M" word. This is largely due to the efforts Microsoft has made with Office 98 to deliver a true Mac experience. It is faster, neater, more fun and even has moments of genius (such as the self-repairing applications).

Of course, Mac-lovers will never fully forgive Gates for inflicting a poor imitation of the Mac's interface on the world, especially as Windows has pushed the Mac OS so far into second place. But Microsoft's new commitment to supporting the Mac, which included a $150m investment, has helped (together with iMac and other new, better-value products) to give Apple a future.

As far as Office is concerned, Microsoft is merely returning to its roots. In 1984, long before it came to dominate the world, Microsoft Word was one of the first Mac word-processors. It was joined by Excel a year later. That is why the Mac commands for cut, copy and paste (control-X, -C and -V) are now used by PC-users worldwide.

However, by Word 6.0, the rot had set in. Many users gave up on this slow, bloated program and went back to the previous version, 5.1. For a while it looked as if Microsoft, too, had given up. In fact, it has been four years since it last upgraded Office for the Mac, leaving Mac- users with an inability to exchange files directly with the more recent Windows versions.

That is one of many problems addressed by Office 98, which is Microsoft's best effort yet at removing the compatibility barriers between different versions of its software. Both PC- and Mac-users can now work on the same files, and any changes they make are automatically recognised by the software and are colour-coded.

From the start, Office 98 is easier to use. You just drag it on to your hard disk to install it, and it supports Mac drag and drop for the first time, making it easy to drop even a QuickTime movie into a document. It is also more Mac-like in its appearance. And the many Word 5.1-users can make it retain 5.1's simpler interface.

Other notable additions include Max, the dancing, quirky assistant to guide you through its features and respond to (very) plain English questions - just as well, as the rest of the help features are convoluted and the documentation is basic.

Word handles large files well, with a neat Document Map feature to take you instantly to any part of a document. And it is a lot more Web aware. Each application has a Web toolbar and can format HTML pages, and you can even surf the Net from Word. You can also insert hyperlinks into any document, which, as ClarisWorks Office has shown, is a very handy way of getting about big files.The hyperlinks will also bring up a Web page, and Word can open any HTML page as a fully formatted Word document, which can also be saved as HTML pages.

Another neat idea is the ability to create and edit tables in Word just by drawing the table on screen as you want it, with none of the pre-selection you would normally need to do in a dialog box (although that option is still available). Those tables can also be used to do calculations, without needing to link to Excel. Excel 98, however, is a lot faster than previous versions, and will automatically proffer corrections to common syntax errors in formulas. It will even understand plain-English row and column headings, instead of needing cell references to create formulas, and you can make changes by dragging coloured range borders.

Some new features, such as animated text and the decidedly weird AutoSummarise tool, which gives you a short, but rarely useful, summary of what you've written, may seem like overkill; others, like the drawing tools which could be used for DTP, will find a niche.

There have been some compatibility problems, such as with Adobe Type Reunion and Connectix RAM Doubler (for which fixes are available); and there are, inevitably, some bugs. But the package is generally stable, fast and efficient.

Besides Word and Excel, Microsoft Office 98 includes PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. It requires a PowerPC Mac with a 120-MHz processor, 16MB RAM (32MB recommended), 50MB to 120MB free disk space, CD-ROM, and Mac OS 7.5 or later. It costs pounds 410 inc VAT (or pounds 220 for an upgrade). A less comprehensive, but useful alternative is Claris Office for pounds 100.

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