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Product: Microsoft Word, part of MS Office Professional Edition 2003

Developer: Microsoft Corporation

Relevance: Microsoft Word, part of the company's popular Office suite of software packages is the world's industry standard word processor. MS Word comes with every feature any reporter or journalist might possibly need – and then some. Upgrades to various editing and research tools and the ability to collaborate on files makes the latest Word edition a must-have.

Review: Although we're primarily concentrating on Word 2003 in this review, we received the software as a component of Microsoft's Office 2003 suite. Due to the integration of Word within the larger Office suite, we will separately review certain Office components, modules and accessories that are applicable to the Word experience.

Happily, installation of Word is quick and painless as part of the Office suite: slide in the disc, agree to a couple of standard questions and the software installs itself. Word launches within three or four seconds, even on a three-year old Windows box we specifically used as one of our test machines. Inexplicably on the older machine, the attached mouse and keyboard became disabled initially, but a few times futzing around (translation: removing and reinserting the USB connector), we got things working once again. While we acknowledge the USB situation was rather odd, the new software hasn't crashed or been problematic ever since our install and several months of subsequent usage.

Activation is required to launch Word more than 50 times, while registration of the software still remains voluntary. Microsoft's privacy statement explains that the activation process is completely anonymous and that no personal information is provided to the company. Instead, only information about your computer is captured. An important distinction for some, but irrelevant to privacy experts.

They would argue that information about one's personal computer is personal information. For us, by now this argument seems pointless – we leave digital crumbs wherever we travel. Still, we declined to register our copy of the software. Yes, we're paranoid. But governments, corporations and individuals that aren't friendly to opposing viewpoints often enjoy chasing down personal information about writers. Sometimes, such as in these cases, anonymity is crucial.

And yes, the activation process indeed makes it more challenging if you decide to upgrade your computer or if you use both a desktop and a laptop. In the former case, you must effectively get Microsoft's permission and in the latter case, you are supposed to buy two copies of the software.

Why not Open Source?
Before we go much further in the review, we feel we have to address one nagging question: why not just go open source and side-step the de-facto monopoly? Good question!

After all, there are open source options for word processing software, spreadsheets, e-mail – as well as the other components of Office. And Microsoft Office is big and certainly more expensive than everything else in the Open Source world. Further, Microsoft's software requires up to 366 MB of hard disk space and will take more if you choose to install various optional extras. On up-to-date machines this will not be a problem. On older or less well-equipped computers, this relatively large hard drive requirement may cause problems.

So why should journalists use the industry standard that some consider filled with lots of extra options that most people (including writers and book designers) never use? First, because it *is* the industry standard and will continue to be for years to come. If your publisher wants a story sent in Word, you better send it just that way. Sure, writers are an ornery lot. But we like to get our views across; the more potential readers or viewers, the happier we are.

Second, staff writers and freelance writers alike have to be able to freely interchange their work, typically with others who have standardized on Office. Some open source offerings don't support all the features available in Word, and those that do may save files in native formats incompatible with Word.

Third, while some of the open source options have some of the features of Word, many writers actually do use some of the more esoteric (but clearly useful) extra functions. So while many of us complain that Microsoft keeps adding new features (making it slower and less efficient to use), eventually we start using those same new features we originally decried.

Sharing is nice
A compelling reason to upgrade to this version of Word is its cool file sharing features. Word now provides a shared workspace that helps owners collaborate on documents. The Shared Workspace option (under the Tools menu) lets you post documents to your own SharePoint workspace location and invite your writing or editing team to work on the documents with you.

These documents can be in Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Visio – but only if they're 2003 editions! You can post task lists and have team members check them off when they are done. And once you save your revised document, you'll be prompted to update the shared reference so all members of your team have access to the most up-to-date version. This scenario depends on working in a Windows Server environment, but collaborative workgroups will often have a Server available for other applications already.

Further, there are lots of useful tools at the Research pane, all accessible with a click on any word combined with the Alt key. The Research pane pops up to the right of your main document – although one of our reviewers thought it would have been preferable to add the pane beside the document instead of covering over part of it.

Both US and UK thesauruses, the Encarta dictionary and translation into any of twelve languages are available in the Reference pane. Along with these stand-alone tools, you'll also find links to eLibrary, the Encarta encyclopedia, Factiva iWorks (for articles on a particular subject), MSN Search and some business sites. In the push to integrate the various software programs in the suite, these tools are now just as accessible in Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher, in effect making this a formidable research portal for information workers.

Another compelling reason to upgrade to the new Word is its very cool language feature. The spell-check option has vastly increased the scope of languages you can check, including various French and Spanish dialects, useful for those writing for other markets. You'll find business relations improve remarkably when working in South and Central America if you can use the localized Spanish dialects instead of the distant Spanish used in Madrid or Barcelona, for example.

Improvements and oddities
Thankfully, most familiar features remain without the random changes that plague earlier Microsoft upgrades. Keyboard shortcuts, for example, remain unchanged, so you don't have to get accustomed to a whole new way to type. You can upgrade and continue working on unfinished documents without having to relearn the software. For busy reporters, this is good news.

There are some clear improvements to older features and a few annoyances, along with a few features that combine the two. On the plus side, Print Preview finally allows you to see all your pages at once, simplifying the process of checking for consistent headers, footers and spacing. The Reading layout pulls out breaks and excess formatting to make documents easier to read. It is the default layout for documents attached to e-mail, very helpful for quick reviews – although you will have to save and open attachments to see them with their proper formatting.

Another good thing for professional writers: Track Changes is seriously improved. Although it is more complicated to use, the new Track Changes creates a far better result than in previous versions of Word. Sure, you still activate Track Changes using the traditional Tools menu, but you must now use Markup (under the View menu) to see a "clean" copy of your document. To use Accept Change or Accept All Changes, you must now activate the Reviewing Toolbar with View > Toolbars > Reviewing command. No, it's not particularly complicated. But it does seem more convoluted than it needs to be.

On the other hand, the results generated by the new Track Changes are definitely worth the hassle. Rather than those confusing multi-colored strikeout lines generated by successive revisions, Track Changes now creates small bubble boxes – complete with dotted lines leading to the appropriate spot in the text. The boxes indicate exactly what change has been made and when. So if you've ever had to wade through a large document that's been subjected to a substantial edit, you'll be singing Word's praises from the highest water cooler in your office after just one session with the new Track Changes!

In case some horrible editor (or writer, perish the thought) hasn't bothered to use Track Changes, the Compare Documents feature automatically scrolls two documents side by side so you can visually check for discrepancies – very cool. Another delightful upgrade is that the Protect Document option now lets you ensure that no one subsequently editing your work can ruin your formatting by adding manual tabs or anything else.

Taking a step in the right direction, Word Count now has its own mini-toolbar that can remain on while you are working on a document. Unfortunately, as soon as you continue typing, the previous count disappears, replaced by <Click Recount to view>. This makes it slightly easier to have an updated tally, rather than going to Tools and choosing Word Count, but we would have loved to see both the previous count and an ongoing tally included on the mini-toolbar.

One would think that anyone using the feature should be smart enough to know to click something called Recount if they want to recount the words. Do they really have to leave this instruction at the expense of the actual word count? Two of our reviewers thought this new functionality of Word was a great start but all agreed that we haven't quite arrived at the destination.

The Paste Options mini-icon is a hybrid benefit/annoyance. As you probably can guess, the new feature tells you about your paste options – and shows up every time you paste anything. We thought it was nice to know one's options (especially the more esoteric ones), but memories of Clippy come to mind as this feature can become more annoying with use. For example, it covered a nearby word on our screen and we couldn't seem to move it.

Speaking of Clippy, the little guy appears the first time one starts writing a letter. It was banished with a quick right click instruction set but all of us thought it should never have resurfaced from its iconic retirement.

Spelling and grammar checks are standard Word features that are amongst the most commonly applied by all owners. Recognizing that, one would expect these to be the most improved. Thus, it was surprising the spell-checker did not recognize words such as "blog", "iPod", "telescam" and "zine". It did, however, recognize "fanzine", "IMHO", "psychodrama" and "trolling", so we know it's trying. And for that, we were grateful.

On top of these issues, there are a few oddities. Some of the new features disappeared after a few days. For example, upon installation, the extended toolbar options would automatically extend to the full menu after placing the cursor over the Toolbar Options tab. This eliminated a single click – always a benefit! (Besides, the visual representation of each option is included to the right of the choice, making it even less necessary for today's aspiring writers to know how to read.) Curiously, this automatic extension feature stopped after a while, making it necessary for us to click the Toolbar Options tab to access all options once again. A little thing perhaps, but being writers, it's the little things that get to us.

Microsoft has done an excellent job upgrading Word in many places. If you ever think you might want to share documents with your editor, writing team or anyone else, the Shared Workspace feature is reason enough to upgrade. We found that improvements to Word's Track Changes, its increased language options and the addition of other, cool little betterments really do make writing easier for those of us who write for a living. Recommended.

End of Review

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