As you know, unless you've spent the last couple of years re-enacting Shackleton's third voyage to the Antarctic, Microsoft Word 2004 is now a reality. The previous major upgrades were Word 2001, which (just to confuse future historians) appeared in 2000, followed about a year later by Word X, which had few new features aside from Mac OS X compatibility.
Word 2004 introduces no fundamental changes in behavior, and if you aren't having problems now, there may be no compelling reason to upgrade. But if you are running into certain limitations, particularly in the areas of revision tracking, AppleScript scriptability, Unicode-based fonts, or Windows compatibility, Word 2004 could be a must-have. Other new features, such as Notebook View and the new animations and inline buttons, are less compelling, in my opinion.
Installation -- Installation from the CD was easy. You may drag an Office folder directly to your hard disk or run an installer program which allows some choices about what's installed; I ran the installer program, as Microsoft recommends (other TidBITS staffers saw problems when performing a drag & drop install over a beta version). It permitted me to install on a secondary partition. Users now each have a Normal template in their own ~/Documents/Microsoft User Data folder; previously it lived in the Office folder and was shared by all users, which was just plain wrong, since it is the repository of most user customizations. As in the past, my old Normal template was automatically found and used, but I had to retrieve my other custom templates by hand.
My Office 2004 installation, which omitted foreign-language proofing tools and other extras I felt I wouldn't need, is about 50 percent larger than Office X (over 360 MB on my machine); most of the difference is a new, larger collection of fonts (80 MB, as opposed to 2 MB in Office X), some of it is tutorials (23 MB), and some of it is new templates (13 MB more than before). A complete or drag & drop installation would be 525 MB.
When I first started Word, it installed about 60 fonts in my User Fonts folder. Some of these fonts are valuable and useful. For example, the new Verdana includes twice as many characters as the Verdana already in /Library/Fonts. But once you have multiple copies of the same font, it's difficult to know which will apply at any given time, and it's rude to install 80 MB of fonts - particularly those that might override or be overridden by existing fonts - without at least telling the user what's about to happen.
Comments and Revisions -- A comment in Word, you may recall, is like a footnote, but it isn't part of your printed document; it's a remark made by the author or by someone else through whose hands the document has passed, and it is extremely useful as a means of communication amongst several people by whom a document is to be vetted (as happens with the manuscripts for our Take Control ebooks, for instance). In the past, comments appeared in a secondary scrolling pane at the bottom of the window, and caused no end of troublesome interference with your work; for instance, scrolling the comment pane would also cause the main document to scroll, and inserting a comment would cause the selected main text to be a highlighted in yellow, in a way that prevented you from knowing what text you were selecting. Both problems have been fixed, making Word 2004 significantly easier to use for collaboration.
Word's capability to record changes made to a document (revisions) may not be important to everyone, but to folks who exchange a document with an editor, it's invaluable (again, this is crucial to how a Take Control ebook is developed). In the past, however, users who needed the revisions feature have had to wrestle with its shortcomings and inconveniences. The presence of changes was indicated only by markings such as colors, underlines, and strikethroughs; if you wanted to know who had made a change, you had to hover the mouse over your text to make a balloon appear, and even then all you learned was that something had been "inserted" or "deleted" by someone, with no further statement of exactly what had happened. Formatting changes (changing text from plain to bold, for instance) were not noted at all.
All of this, too, has been fixed, and again, authors and editors will rejoice. You can display the reviewing pane, which now contains all revisions and comments as a simple list. The list is descriptive and includes formatting changes: so, for example, you learn that the font was changed to bold, or that the word "decision" was deleted. Revisions and comments have thus been melded into two aspects of the same thing, which, of course, they are; you can simplify the list by asking to see just comments, or just revisions, or just changes made by a particular person.
In Page Layout View, comments and revisions can also appear as persistent balloons in the right margin where they don't interfere with your view of the text. The balloons are interactive - you can type in a comment balloon, and you can click a button in a revision balloon to accept or reject the revision. It's a pity these balloons are limited to Page Layout View, since they make following the revisions and comments in a document even easier than the reviewing pane.
The Page Layout View balloons and the state of the document can appear in four different ways: Original, showing the document before revision tracking started, with no balloons; Original Showing Markup, showing the document with deletions incorporated but insertions described in balloons; Final Showing Markup, with insertions and deletions incorporated and deletions noted in balloons; and Final, with all changes incorporated and no balloons. These can be combined with preferences about whether or not to display incorporated changes inline (for example, whether or not deleted material should remain visible as strikethrough text) to provide powerful representations of the document's revision history.
For those who need them, Word's revisions features are unparalleled; I know no other program that does anything similar. However, one unfortunate limitation still exists. Surprisingly, Word fails to distinguish between multiple editing sessions by the same person: for example, changes made by Adam are not distinguished from changes made by Adam a week later on top of intervening changes made by Matt.)
Despite this lack, the Word 2004 improvements transform these features from being useful but painful to ingenious and delightful; I now look forward to using them. Loud applause for Microsoft on this one.
AppleScript -- In the past, Word's support for scriptability via AppleScript has been spotty and undependable. Only a small fraction of Word's capabilities were exposed directly to AppleScript, and trying to script them could easily crash Word. The workaround was to use Visual Basic for Applications. VBA is Word's native scripting language and can make Word do absolutely anything. Since AppleScript allows you to create a VBA script as a big string in your AppleScript code, and then send that entire string to Word, you could use VBA from within AppleScript to compensate for the shortcomings in Word's AppleScript model. But this was an unsatisfactory solution. The resulting code was ugly and difficult to maintain, and even more important, the VBA-within-AppleScript routine couldn't return a result to your script, so the script wasn't properly interactive. Scripters devised various horrible workarounds, but the fact remained that there were severe limits to what could be accomplished through external scripting of Word.
All that has completely changed. AppleScript support has been rewritten from the ground up - a massive undertaking, and an extremely welcome change. A great proportion of Word's capabilities (perhaps all of them; time and experimentation will tell) are now exposed directly to AppleScript in a natural manner. This truly splendid improvement will completely change the way Word fits into people's workflows.
(As an aside, if you have my book, AppleScript: The Definitive Guide, this change affects Excel as well, which means that the book's Excel example no longer works. I've posted a new version on my Errata Web page.)
Fonts and Unicode -- Early in my use of Word X, a Classics colleague wrote to me in some distress. At the urging of friends, he had switched from Windows to Mac OS X, and now he couldn't read his old Word documents that involved Ancient Greek. I had him send me the relevant fonts and a sample document, and sure enough, some characters in his primary Greek font (called, appropriately, "Greek") were being replaced by an underline. I hammered away at this problem for months, but couldn't solve it; Word just wasn't compatible with the Greek font's Unicode characters, as I explained in my earlier TidBITS article on Unicode. But Word was Unicode-aware on Windows, so a document using Greek created on Windows could be illegible on Mac OS X. Naturally, the first thing I did once I had Word 2004 running was to open this same document. Presto, it displayed correctly!
Word is now Unicode-savvy on Mac OS X, including support for many input methods as well as direct entry from the Character Palette. (For more details, search on "multilingual support" in Word Help.) This major advance is absolutely essential to those who need this sort of thing. However, don't raise your hopes too high. Serious shortcomings remain. Certain complex scripts (Indic) don't work; neither do right-to-left scripts (Semitic). So Word 2004 is a step backwards from Word 98 using WorldScript under Mac OS 9.2 in this regard. Furthermore, certain typesetting behaviors involving multiple diacritics work badly, and Word doesn't support Mac OS X advanced typographical features involving ligatures and glyph variants; indeed, this means that the fonts installed by Word can mess up the display of certain languages in Cocoa applications. [Thanks to Tom Gewecke for major assistance with this paragraph.]
Also, Word has some new, incomprehensible font behavior. You can see this for yourself using the Symbol font. If you select some Times characters, you can change them to Symbol and then back again to Times at will. But if you start with your insertion point in a Times paragraph, switch to Symbol, and type some Symbol characters, if you now select those new Symbol characters and try to change them to Times, you can't. So you can easily end up with a document containing some Symbol characters that you can't change to another font and some that you can, with no indication of which is which. And, if you do a Replace All where you replace all Symbol characters with Times, Symbol characters of the second kind change to Times, but the others become rectangular boxes!
I'm not sure how wide-spread this problem is - does it apply only to the Symbol font? Users are complaining of problems with other fonts, so perhaps not. But in any case, the fact that Word can behave so oddly with regard to fonts is of serious and fundamental concern. It would be better for Word to at least put up a warning and explain why it's behaving in this curious manner. Instead, the user is left puzzled and even a little fearful, since it is all too easy to put the document into a perilous state, with fonts that can't be altered, or with those horrifying rectangular boxes.
Compatibility -- If I'm being a bit hard on Word for not putting up an informative explanation of font problems, it's because one of Word's new features is that it does provide informative explanations of possible font problems. The Compatibility Report (shared with Excel and PowerPoint, but probably most important in Word) is a utility panel listing aspects of your document that might present incompatibilities with earlier versions of the program.
For example, if you type "1/4 of our users are ecstatic", Word 2004's auto-formatting now changes the three characters "1/4" to a single fraction character - because Word now does Unicode, and can display this character. But previous Mac versions of Word don't do Unicode and can't display this character. The Compatibility Report lets you know that your document contains a character that might prove troublesome; in fact, after Word creates the fraction character, the Toolbox button in the standard toolbar starts glowing red, to alert you that you might want to examine the report. Similarly, when you save a document, Word may recommend in the Save dialog that you check compatibility, and you can perform the check right there. Other reported incompatibilities include such things as line-breaking differences and substitution of one font for another that wasn't available when the document was opened.
In the past, Word would warn you only that you might lose some data or formatting without telling you conclusively that you would or specifying what you might lose. For anyone who regularly shares files with users of other versions of Word, therefore, the Compatibility Report is a big help. Keep in mind, though, that it presently is still somewhat incomplete and buggy. I immediately encountered a situation where Word failed to report correctly that a certain font required by the document was missing, and instead gave a completely different and inapplicable warning (it said that a Russian font was in use and warned that Russian proofing tools were missing). Still, this feature is definitely a step in the right direction.
A New View -- Notebook View is a mode of display reminiscent of programs like AquaMinds NoteTaker and Circus Ponies NoteBook. By default, Notebook View has ruled horizontal lines and a vertical margin line, like a paper school notebook; it has a large blank area at the top for a title, and it has section tabs down the right side. You can add sections and change the titles of sections; within a section, you can make an outline of notes, and an entry can even have a checkbox and a priority mark.
The correspondence between Notebook View and other views of your document works like this: outline entries are automatically assigned paragraph formats "Note Level 1", "Note Level 2", and so on; the blank area at the top is a page header; and the section divisions correspond to new-page section breaks, with the section titles corresponding to nothing at all.
But Notebook View is thus not ontologically similar to Outline View, Page Layout View, and Normal View. Normal View and Page Layout View show the same document laid out slightly differently; Outline View displays your document's existing structure, using Heading paragraphs as the levels of the outline. Thus, these views are all ways of looking at the same thing. But Notebook View shows a completely different thing, because a word-processing document doesn't typically have any Note Level paragraphs! Indeed, if you switch an existing document to Notebook View, Word warns that some conversion will take place and offers to create a new document with the information instead. If you persist in converting, your document's formatting and structure are largely destroyed.
The trouble here is that NoteBook View isn't a view at all. It's a representation of a completely different sort of document - a Notebook document. That's not a useless kind of document, to be sure; but in the first place, it properly belongs to another application (which, on the Windows side, it is: Microsoft OneNote), and in the second place, Microsoft's implementation of the notebook metaphor is feature-poor and clumsy compared to the elegant AquaMinds and Circus Ponies implementations. My personal feeling is that if you need a notebook program, you should get a good notebook program like NoteTaker, NoteBook, or one of the many other snippet keepers I've reviewed over the years.
Buttons and Bows -- Word 2004 makes much use of small, colorful animations, markings, and button-like objects that float over or within your document. When you introduce Unicode characters into your document, a palette button throbs crimson. The Formatting Palette fades gradually to transparent when not in use, and snaps back to opaque when you hover the pointer over it. When you type "teh" instead of "the", a blue horizontal double-line animates under the word as auto-correction takes place. Furthermore, if you later click in or hover the pointer over that word, the double-line reappears, and if you hover over the double-line, it turns into a button you can press to pop up a menu of options (revert to "teh", remove "teh" from the auto-correction list, and so forth). Similarly, whenever you paste text, a button appears at the end of the pasted material; if you hover over this button, it turns into a pop-up menu where you can choose how you want the pasted material formatted (using the formatting of the source, of the destination, or as text only).
This eye candy is a bit silly, turning your document from a calm sheet of virtual paper to a world of glowing activity - rather as if the design of Word had been put in the hands of Xbox fanatics. It involves no new content; these are all cues for actions that you could have performed in some other way. At the same time, it can be welcome, because these cues expose information about actions you might not have known how to perform or options you didn't know existed. If you've ever typed a line of code such as "i = 3" in a Word document and wondered why "i" changed to "I" and how you could prevent it, now you need no longer wonder.
Conclusions -- I haven't described every change in Word 2004; indeed, I probably haven't discovered them all. Instead, I've discussed what I take to be the largest, most significant innovations. But small changes can be important too. For instance, Word now deals properly with long filenames and long file paths; it's only fair to acknowledge the fix, even though this is how things ought to have been all along. Also, the notorious bug where saving a document repeatedly while working on it could hit the system's open file limit and cause you to lose all your changes is said to be gone.
At the same time, any revision of Word brings its share of problems and disappointments, and Word 2004 is unlikely to be an exception. Your "favorite" bug may well not been fixed, especially if it lies deep in code that Microsoft is unwilling to touch. For example, there are reports that graphics pasted or imported into a Word document still sometimes don't print properly. Scrolling with the Page Up or Page Down keys still moves the insertion point, which makes any attempt to glance at a different part of your document an action not to be taken lightly. The problem where the menu of styles is only ten items tall, even if you have dozens of styles and a huge screen, is not fixed. And of course when you apply a style you still get the same inscrutable behavior that I've been complaining of for years.
New problems have doubtless been introduced. For example, EndNote is said to break on Word 2004. I've experienced some difficulties with the Find dialog: during a repeated Find, sometimes the selection point in the main document simply vanishes, as if an invisible nothingness were selected. Double-clicking and dragging to select by word can end up including an additional word to the left of the one you initially selected if you drag up and to the left and then down and to the right. And new features, no matter how attractive, will need break-in time before users discover how well they work in the real world. For example, in addition to paragraph and character styles, there can now be table styles and numbering styles; will these help users create consistent documents more easily, or will they add to the confusion that automatic numbering and styles have caused in the past? Time will tell.
By now, however, long-time Word users are surely accustomed to all of this. They know from long experience that an upgrade to Microsoft Word is like buying a new car: it's expensive, it looks better in the showroom than in your garage, and it has the potential to reveal previously unknown problems at some inconvenient moment down the road. Frankly, we should all just take a deep breath, douse our faces in cold water, and face reality: Word is a massive, complicated program, full of legacy code and constantly treading the fine line between the Macintosh and Windows worlds. Word will never get any simpler, and Microsoft may never get to the heart of some of Word's deep-seated issues. Those longing for a return to Word 5.1 will be, as always, disappointed in Word 2004; Word 5.1 was a program from a simpler time, and Microsoft won't be returning to that era.
And yet, like a new car, when you need the latest Word upgrade, you need it, and despite any annoyances, you'll still enjoy the new car smell and power door locks. Whether your old ride was Word 5.1 or (as is likely) a more-recent version of Word, Word 2004's radically improved commenting and revision tracking features, improved Unicode capabilities, full support for AppleScript, and compatibility checking add up to a significantly enhanced program for those of us who use these features on a daily basis.
Word 2004 is most commonly purchased as part of the full Microsoft Office suite, which lists for $400 or costs $150 for educational users; upgrades cost $240. If you wish to buy Word by itself, it costs $230, with upgrades listing for $110. Resellers like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics generally knock $30 to $40 off those prices. You can also download a "test drive" version of Office 2004 (186 MB) that works for 30 days. Microsoft Office 2004 requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 or higher.