I like exploring old towns and new restaurants. I like finding sand dollars on the beach. But when I sit down to work, I'm rarely in the mood to discover fabulous new features in my business software. Like many folks, I've learned the bare minimum about my e-mail program, my word processor and my spreadsheet software--just enough to get the job done. And that's a problem for Microsoft. You see, no matter how many whiz-bang features the boys from Redmond pack into their best-selling Office suite, most users barely scratch the surface. Who needs the latest upgrade when the old version works just fine? What's worse, many people who use Office never bothered to buy it in the first place. A new report by the Business Software Alliance says 37% of all business software is pirated, and most of that is Microsoft's.
Microsoft is cracking the whip with Office XP Standard, which users of earlier versions can buy for $239 ($479 for new users and reformed thieves). As usual, it's packed with tempting treats. In Word, you can dictate text and let the software do the typing (with only the occasional dumb error). When your computer crashes, you can retrieve the file you were working on without losing your most recent changes. You can make PowerPoint presentations on prettier templates and flow text from one slide to the next. If you're really daring, you can copy financial data from the Web into Excel and get instant updates.
What I like most about Office XP is that it gives you a chance of actually finding all these extras. When you fire up Word, Excel or PowerPoint, a window on the right-hand side of the screen gives you a list of things you may want to do, like open an existing document or use a premade template. There are similar windows for adding clip art, formatting a document and doing searches. In previous versions, these items were hidden under menus. Documents are still peppered with all sorts of new icons and old squiggly lines meant to help you along, but if they bug you, you can turn them off (although that involves some serious menu diving).
What's not to like in Office XP? My main beef is the product-activation feature. When you first install the software, you are prompted to register online or by phone. Ignore it, and your copy will abruptly stop working and refuse to budge until you do the right thing. Same goes for multiple installations. You can load Office once or twice, but that's it. Microsoft says this is to prevent piracy and that if you call tech support with a good excuse, they may bend the rules, but it's a nuisance.
My other gripe is that the new online links tend to funnel users to Microsoft services. Setting up a Microsoft Hotmail or MSN account to run in the slick Outlook software is a snap; doing it with non-Microsoft providers is a chore. Highlight an address in Word, and you can map it online--using Microsoft Expedia. Type a stock symbol, and you can get a live price--from Microsoft Money Central. You get the idea.
None of these links were essential, so I'm not too worried about Microsoft's playing favorites--yet. But since the company is a convicted monopolist, at least in the eyes of a U.S. district-court judge, you have to wonder where all this will lead.