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The Word on Word 6

The Microsoft elves are busy packaging Microsoft Word 6 for the Mac, and beta testers were just given official permission to discuss the program. I spent the last four months immersed in the beta, writing a "Microsoft Word Starter Kit" for Hayden Books.

Also, in a former life, I spent about thirty months doing phone support for Microsoft, fielding calls about Word. I no longer work for Microsoft, but this experience undoubtedly gives me oddball opinions and biases, many of which should become clear in due time.

Hardware and Software Requirements — If you haven’t already heard the rumors, I suggest you sit down and take a deep breath before reading further. Word requires the following:

  • System 7 or later.
  • 2 to 3 MB of RAM (if you buy the version of Word in Microsoft Office, you get a free copy of Connectix’s RAM Doubler, and you’ll need it). 3 MB will work better for longer documents. Although you may be able to go a little lower than 2 MB, using OLE-based add-ons requires additional RAM, often 1 MB or more for things like WordArt or Microsoft Graph or Equation Editor.
  • 10 to 27 MB of disk space (you could theoretically go lower than ten, but ten is a practical bottom line). Word comes with many add-ons, and with a little effort, you can avoid parts of Word that you never plan to use. I easily cut my personal installation to 17 MB. As a caveat, these figures are based on the marketing beta; the numbers may change slightly with the real version.
  • A 68020-based Macintosh or faster. However, if you plan to run Word on anything besides a 68040-based Macintosh or a Power Mac, try it first on one of your real life documents. I found the last beta practically unusable on my 33 MHz 68030-based Duo 230, and I hope that Microsoft had an opportunity to do a few last minute optimizations on the overall speed. If you purchase the 68K version, you can get the PowerPC-native version when it ships; Microsoft claims it will ship this fall.
  • A big screen wouldn’t hurt, and I like using Word 6 much better on my 838 x 624 NEC monitor than on my 640 x 480 Apple monitor. If you have a PowerBook or an SE/30-like screen, be prepared to learn about customizing toolbars, so that you can have only one toolbar with the buttons and pop-up menus that you need the most.

The Marketing Hype – IntelliSense — I have yet to find a list of exactly which features use Microsoft’s trademarked IntelliSense technology, but the general idea seems to be that features with "Auto" in their names use IntelliSense. I don’t mind Microsoft having IntelliSense, but it drives me crazy that they market it as though it offers something truly special.

The most hyped feature of all, AutoCorrect, corrects spelling and punctuation as you type. AutoCorrect is extremely customizable, and I like it. Of course, similar features exist (and have existed for some time in some cases) in third-party utilities such as Thunder, and other word processors such as Word Perfect and FullWrite, so I can’t award Microsoft innovation points for AutoCorrect.

Another hyped feature, AutoFormat, makes little sense. The point of the feature is to help clueless users who don’t want to think about formatting. In using AutoFormat, you click through about six dialog boxes, waiting now and again for Word to catch up, Word evaluates patterns in the document, and (with your permission and guidance) applies styles and completes a few other clean-up tasks. Sophisticated users don’t need it and new users won’t understand it.

Table AutoFormat helps you quickly apply borders and shading to tables by choosing from a wide selection of formats – it’s a fine feature and I think it will make life easier for people who use it.

AutoCaption could be compelling for people who must caption tables, equations, graphs, or figures in a document because it automatically applies caption numbers to each item. You can even have Word automatically include updating numbers in the equations and make updating cross-references to the equations. Word can handle more than one series of captions in a document, perhaps a caption series for equations, another for tables, and a third for graphs. I don’t know about other word processors, but FullWrite 2.0 appears to have a similar feature.

AutoMark lets you use a concordance file to quickly mark index entries in a document, a significant improvement from the Word 5 method of marking each entry individually.

OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) — OLE’s Linking enables you to set up links that work in a similar way to Publish & Subscribe links; the Embedding part of OLE enables you to use the tools from one program, such as Excel, to create an object that resides in a file from a different program, such as Word (few non-Microsoft programs support OLE on the Mac). When you embed an Excel worksheet object in a Word document, the worksheet object is literally part of the Word document; it does not exist as a separate file.

I have yet to play much with OLE in Word 6, but OLE is key to Microsoft’s strategy for their Office product suite. I hope that Microsoft has worked out the many kinks in OLE linking that existed in previous versions of Word and Excel. If you use linking, I recommend that you frequently back up any document having links. If you plan to link between documents, make sure your backup scheme maintains the links between documents.

Notable Improvements — Word 6 has about a hundred notable improvements; here are just a few:

Table Cells — If you ever made a table in Word 4 or 5, you probably noticed that if you type a lot of text into a table cell, the text wraps within the cell and the cell grows taller to accommodate the text. If you type enough text in the cell, the cell grows taller than the height of a page. Because Word 4 and 5 cannot put a page break in the middle of a cell, only the first page of the cell would print out, causing no end of headaches. Word 6 eliminates this problem by offering a choice as to whether or not page breaks can occur in the middle of a cell.

Landscape and Portrait — Before Word 6, you could not have landscape and portrait pages in the same document. Word 6 solves this problem by making orientation a section-based format.

Master Documents — If master documents prove reliable in real life use, serious writers will find them incredibly helpful for working with multiple files as a group. For example, if you write a 500 page book having ten chapters, you probably have ten files, one for each chapter. The Master Document feature permits you to work with all ten files as though they were one big file for the purposes of outlining, moving text from one file to another, using the Find or Replace command, spell checking, and so on.

Page Numbers — Word 5 has at least four ways to add three different page numbers. Word 6 still has three different page numbers, but only offers three ways to add them. I don’t like the way Microsoft implemented formatting page numbers, but if you can figure out the method behind the madness, you can restart the numbering at any number on any page, and you can include chapter numbers in the page number format.

List Formats — Bulleting and Numbering have become paragraph formats, making it easy to number or bullet lists. The features offer a tremendous amount of flexibility, but if you want to push the flexibility, you must figure out some extremely complex dialog boxes.

What’s in Their Drinking Water? — Again and again as I learned Word 6, I ran into an overall lack of elegance in the awkward dialog boxes and controls. The interface makes Word look like a Windows program; I would be happier with an elegant interface that felt like something dreamt up by people who live and breathe Macintosh.

To make Word look less like a Windows program, you can go to the Tools menu, choose Options, select the General tab, and turn off a checkbox for "3D Dialog and Display Effects." This makes the program look more like a Macintosh program, but because Microsoft used a non-standard font in the buttons, the dialog boxes don’t have the elegant feel I expect from a well-designed Macintosh program.

Although Microsoft came up with some reasonable new interface ideas like the "tabs" in dialog boxes to reduce the tremendous number of separate dialogs through which you must tunnel, they also invented oddball interface elements such as the "pop-up button" (a control that looks like a button with a down triangle in it, but acts like a pop-up menu), and the "check button" (a control that looks like a normal button with room for a checkmark in it, but works exactly like a normal checkbox).

As a more specific example of lack of elegance, the Envelopes and Labels feature lets you set up and easily print envelopes and labels all within the same dialog box. The feature offers a great deal of built-in flexibility and power, but formatting envelope text works completely differently from formatting label text. To format text on an envelope, you must click an Options button and then click separate Font buttons to bring up separate instances of the Font dialog box, one for the mailing address, another for the return address. In contrast, to format type in a label, you must highlight the type and then press Control while clicking the highlighted type. A "shortcut" menu pops up from the pointer and you can choose Font or Paragraph from the menu in order to access those dialog boxes.

If You Plan to Use Word 6 — Word 6 makes three big assumptions about what the average user knows, and once you master those assumptions about sections, templates, and fields, Word becomes far easier to use.

Sections — In Word, certain formats go by section. Popular section formats included (and still include) page numbering, snaking columns, headers, and footers. To divide a document into sections, you insert section breaks (usually by pressing Command-Enter). Word 6 expands section formatting to include options such as margins and orientation, which previously could only be set for the entire document.

Templates — Templates completely change how you organize Word documents behind the scenes. A template works like a Macintosh stationery document, but becomes far more complex as you explore. A template can store three types of things:

1. Text and graphics that automatically appear in every document based on the template.

2. Style definitions used by every document based on the template.

3. Commands available in every document based on the template. By commands I mean the commands that show on the menus as well as available keyboard shortcuts, toolbars, macros, and AutoText entries (AutoText is the new name for the Glossary).

The default template is called Normal and most of the time, most people will use the Normal template and not think about it. If you start a new document by launching Word or by pressing Command-N, the new document automatically bases itself on the Normal template.

If you work extensively with styles, you want to think more carefully about templates. In previous versions of Word, even if you changed the default style definitions, existing documents would not take on the changed default style definitions. You could import the changed definitions, but the steps were neither obvious nor speedy. In Word 6, a checkbox enables you to set whether a given document will retain its style definitions or whether it will take on new style definitions when you change the template style definitions.

Fields — If you got a kick out of the Show Codes feature in DOS WordPerfect, then you are going to love fields. Fields are blanks that Word (hopefully) fills in for you. Fields have two states – code and result. The code represents what Word should fill in, and the result is what Word does fill in. You toggle between showing codes, showing results, and updating results using a variety of keyboard shortcuts, or you can use the "shortcut" menu (press Control and click on the field).

For example, a table of contents is represented by the field code {TOC}. If you show the result, you get the table of contents. Similarly, page numbers have the code {PAGE}. Fields can also have "switches," which customize the result. People who have figured out switches in DOS or Unix should be comfortable with them. I dislike the idea of switches, but at least a well-designed dialog box helps you set up the switch syntax.

The average user can work with field results showing much of the time, but much of the power of Word stems from its fields and it’s a shame to see fields and switches in a mid-90s Macintosh word processor. Assuming codes and results are necessary, Microsoft could have used simple icons to represent codes and allowed users to customize a field by double-clicking the icon in order to bring up a configuration dialog box.

Final Thoughts — Comparing Word to other Macintosh word processors, I give Word an enthusiastic A for features in terms of quantity and scope, but I give the implementation a C- (the speed and hardware requirements have me tempted to drop that down to a D+). A truly elegant implementation that ran well on any 68030-based Mac might have made Word 6 an amazing word processor; instead, we have a heavyweight, mediocre document processor of sorts. If Microsoft releases a 6.0a or a 6.1, I hope that they make increasing the speed a major goal.

I think Adam summed it up best by calling Word "astonishing" and leaving me to my own interpretations of that word.

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