A Word to the Wise – Word 98, That Is
In 1994, when Microsoft released Word 6.0, it was widely condemned for poor performance on 68K machines, conflicts with popular extensions, and flouting Macintosh interface standards. But I liked it anyway, and wrote an essay praising especially its handling of "large, formal, or publishable" documents, and its macro automation. This cry in the wilderness went unheard; even TidBITS, unable to support my views, wouldn’t publish them.
Today, conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, Microsoft is being universally lauded as a returned prodigal, with Word 98 as its penitent offering. Reading the early reviews, I felt vindicated, but also curious as to whether Word 98 differed sufficiently from Word 6 to deserve a revised reception.
Doubtless, part of what’s changed isn’t Word but the atmosphere. Hardware has evolved; our Macs now have plenty of gigs, megs, and megahertz, resulting in some attitude adjustment. Word 6 was reviled for preferring 3,000K of RAM; yet Word 98 prefers 9,000K and no one murmurs – because RAM is cheap, which it wasn’t in 1994. Word 6 was slow; Word 98 is faster, but, just as important, so is the computer. Word 98 is PowerPC only; it’s a pity (I happily use Word 6 on two 68K machines), but evokes no charges of betrayal.
Also, with the passage of time and the advent of Mac OS 8, certain aspects of the Windows aesthetic, unfamiliar in 1994, have become common coin (tabbed dialogs and contextual menus, for instance). And then there’s Microsoft’s proactive propaganda, in the Macworld Expo keynote, at its Macworld party, and especially in the overwhelming 150-page Reviewer’s Guide accompanying the beta CD.
Granted all this, the question remains: are those who excoriated Word 6 justified in praising Word 98? To bring you balanced, in-depth analysis, I’ve spent long, serious hours with Word 98. Before reading on, though, bear in mind that my use of Word may be atypical. Many people use Word as a smarter, more elaborate SimpleText, just as we are said to use our brains to only one-tenth of capacity. But Word is a big, industrial-strength program, and I feel that to ignore its full power is a waste; my notion of what’s a frill and what’s a major feature may not match yours.
Sanity Check — Word 98 looks great. Every aspect of the interface has been rethought, from the look of icons and rulers to the way text scrolls. It’s smart, too, checking grammar and spelling as you type. It’s also fun, sporting cute sounds and the antics of an animated Classic-like Macintosh (Max, the Office Assistant) who answers English-like questions and makes suggestions about the way you work.
Once past the initial "gee whiz" phase, though, the user finds, at the heart of Word 98, no conceptual revolution, no sudden advent of multiple text selection, multiple clipboards, or a Find dialog that can look for a given sequence of styles – powerful core facilities long familiar to Nisus Writer users.
Nor is the new look completely new; it’s largely inherited from Word 97 for Windows. Although Word no longer smacks of being a Windows port (it’s an independent entity, with serious attention paid to the Macintosh Human Interface guidelines), many interface elements that troubled critics of Word 6 remain – the Font dialog, for instance, or the Customize Keyboard dialog. Still, a strong similarity between versions is essential to cross-platform users; breaking down platform distinctions can help save the Mac in office settings.
Long lists of new features call for careful discernment. After all, many of Word 98’s new features are really old features with additional, optional interfaces laid on top of them. This continues the Word 6 philosophy of interface redundancy, but that can be a good thing, providing easier, more prominent access to aspects of Word that may previously have been hidden.
For example, you can query the Office Assistant using English phrases, or you can use the old Help search dialog. You can create a table by drawing it, or with the old grid pop-up. Interaction with the spelling checker and thesaurus can be through contextual menus, or through the old dialog. You can peek at footnotes, and at annotations (now called Comments), with pop-up ScreenTips boxes, or read them in the old separate pane. You can navigate with the old Go To dialog, or with the new browse buttons. And so on.
Some genuinely new features may be perceived by some as useless, inappropriate, or gratuitous bloat. You aren’t forced to use them, but no doubt they contribute to the program’s size.
Take, for instance, Word 98’s many ways of trying to be "intelligent." If you start successive paragraphs with asterisks, Word optionally converts them to bulleted style. Some will like this; others will see it as invasive, and turn it off. (I rather worry, though, about users who will just be confused by it.) Also, for a good laugh, test the AutoSummarize feature (in the Tools menu); I call it AutoTravesty.
A full complement of drawing tools also swells the suite, now with dozens of pre-formed shapes (such as flowchart symbols), Bezier curves, gradients, 3D lighting, interior text that can flow from shape to shape, and more – impressive, but is it appropriate? There are additional toolbars, additional menus, additional icons around the edge of the window, and additional technologies – QuickTime VR in a word-processing document, forsooth! And animated text? Just what we always needed!
Six Fix — Some of what’s new about Word 98 serves merely to correct Word 6. But I should not say "merely." Word 6 badly needed some correcting, and Word 98, to its great credit, is a vastly more pleasant place to work. In dialogs, keystrokes such as Tab, Enter, and arrows work more as expected, and related concepts are brought together as panels of the same dialog. Multilevel numbering is less buggy, and more comprehensible and flexible. Speed of launching, and of opening and saving certain types of document, is significantly improved.
Installation is easier, not so much because of the so-called "drag-and-drop installation" that has proven popular with network administrators (I prefer custom installation), but thanks to the "self-repairing applications" that restore missing libraries. In some ways, it’s just as scary as ever, as these libraries still occupy several megabytes of your System Folder. Although they’re generically described by balloon help and in extension managers, there’s no simple list of what was installed where and why – which is all I really wanted. But at least there’s no mysterious "Microsoft" folder, no "Setup Data" file to worry about! And, existing Word 6 templates are incorporated automatically.
However, not everything is corrected. Telling the Find dialog to look for italic text is still a pain (you must go through the horrible Font dialog). Your hard disk is still sprinkled with Word Work Files while you work. Word still lacks keyboard shortcuts for navigating Help.
Paragraph style inheritance (one style can be based on another, to provide uniformity) has always been one of Word’s better features, but it still isn’t true inheritance; if HeadA is bold, and HeadB is based on HeadA plus italic (bold italic), then if you change HeadA to be bold italic, HeadB automatically unitalicizes itself and alters its own definition: now, it’s based on HeadA plus not italic! (It is impossible to tell HeadB that it should be italic no matter what you may do to HeadA.)
Such disappointing failures to mend Word 6’s ways are not many, but they do exist.
Top Ten — Overshadowing everything else are some important, genuinely new features that undeniably improve the program. Here, in no particular order, is my personal list of the top ten real reasons to upgrade to Word 98.
Handling of large documents is significantly better. As you drag the scrollbar thumb, a ScreenTips window shows what page and what heading you’ll be in if you let go. The new Document Map lets you navigate by means of an outline of headings in the left pane of the window; it’s brilliant. And, you can now identify any paragraph style with an outline level, so you can use other styles besides the internal Heading 1, Heading 2, and so forth to structure your document. Having just written a large book in Word 6, let me tell you, I could have used these features.
Hyperlinks! You can mark text such that clicking it causes another document to open, optionally at a particular bookmark. It’s not the equal of Palimpsest or Storyspace, but it’s a simple, obvious idea, and a great one. (I just wish clicking a link didn’t also cause an extra toolbar to appear.) This feature helps with large documents, too: a Master Document can be shown "collapsed," with hyperlinks to the subdocuments standing in for their content.
The hyperlinks tie in with Word’s new integrated HTML capabilities, which were available for Word 6 as an add-in that I could never make work. Now, you just open an HTML document in Word and it’s displayed much as in a browser – except that it’s a Word document, with tags interpreted as paragraph and character styles, so you can modify the details to get the look you want. It isn’t perfect (the first document I opened obeyed <center> tags incorrectly) but it’s not bad. You can even use Word over the Internet as a Web browser – a big, slow Web browser.
Even more important, you can quickly generate an HTML document from a normal Word document. One simple way is to paste your document into a new one made from the Blank Web Page template, and then do a series of style replacements (H2 for Heading 2, for instance). Extensive help and special menus are provided; it’s almost like being in a different application.
There is now vertical alignment of text in table cells. I’ve been screaming for this since 1990. For example, it is finally possible to bottom-align a numerical value to a two-line description:
on food: $37.30
True Mac OS drag & drop of text is implemented at last. (Word 6’s drag & drop was bogus: it couldn’t communicate with other applications.) Oddly, an annoyingly sized and positioned box at the cursor tip and the cursor itself make it hard to see where the dropped text will go; Microsoft should have studied SimpleText to learn the right relationship between these elements and the insertion point.
The running spelling-and-grammar checker is a blast. Of course, it isn’t intelligent enough to obviate human proofreading; for instance, it catches "The breathe of life is strong," but not "It is hard to chose between them." But to have typos flagged as you work is definitely helpful. If the spell checker doesn’t know an unusual word, it appears with a squiggly red line beneath it. To correct the problem or add the word to the dictionary, Control-click the word and use the contextual menu that appears. If you have a bunch of text you don’t want Word to check, select it, then from the Tools menu, use the Language hierarchical menu to choose Set Language. In the Language dialog box that appears, scroll to the top and choose "no proofing."
The ruler at the top of the window can, as before, be hidden (via the View menu) to gain extra screen real estate; but now, you can temporarily show it by positioning the mouse below the title bar, or by performing an action that requires a ruler (such as resizing a table column).
A new versioning feature works rather like Aladdin’s FlashBack, saving a snapshot of the document each time you close it, or on demand. It’s a "delta" so it doesn’t swell the file size much if successive versions are fairly similar. You can thus retrieve earlier stages of the document; each delta can have a descriptive comment, and deltas can be deleted individually.
Finally, as every TidBITS reader knows, I’m fairly geeky, so to me, the absolute top reason to switch is that the internal scripting language is now Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), as clever and elegant a programming language as the old scripting language, WordBasic, was clumsy and obscure. I am now in programming heaven, converting clunky old ten-line WordBasic scripts into razor-sharp one-liners. Since much of Word’s true power is best realized through customization, and since nearly all of Word’s behavior can be customized by scripting, you need VBA even if you don’t realize it yet.
However, the milieu for writing and debugging VBA scripts lacks many important features familiar to Windows users; in fact, it lacks some features that Excel 5 for Mac used to have! Auto List Members and Auto Quick Info are missing (they cause helpful syntax information to pop up as you’re typing a script); so are the Watch window, the Locals window, and Auto Data Tips (important debugging tools). This is disappointing, and deserves condemnation.
Sense of Style — If you never use styles (uniform character and paragraph formats accessible by name), you may skip this section; it is somewhat technical. But I must discuss the matter, because styles are important to me, and I find that they are handled worse in Word 98 than in Word 6.
The Styles pop-up menu in the Formatting toolbar can now display the name of each style in that style. This sounds like a good idea, but it’s slow, and even worse, the non-standard menu is short, showing only about ten items at once. You can turn off the styling of the names, but the menu still never gets longer than 10 or 11 items visible at once, no matter how large your screen may be! To make matters worse, the names aren’t even listed alphabetically. It is thus very difficult to select a style from the menu.
In Word 6, a splendid and badly needed distinction was introduced between paragraph styles and character styles; Word 98 muddies that distinction in confusing ways. Let’s say you’ve a paragraph style, ItalCenter, which centers the paragraph and makes it italic; and let’s say an existing Normal-style paragraph reads, "The cat sat on the mat." Now, prepare to be bewildered:
If you select "cat" and apply ItalCenter, "cat" becomes italic but nothing else happens. (That’s weird, because this was supposed to be a paragraph style.) If you then select the whole paragraph and apply ItalCenter, the whole paragraph is centered and becomes italic – except "cat", which loses its italics.
Start over. This time, apply to "cat" a built-in character style, Emphasis, which equates to the default font plus italic. Next, select the whole paragraph and apply ItalCenter; the paragraph is centered and becomes italic, including "cat"! If you then select "cat" and apply Normal, "cat" loses its italics, but retains Emphasis style. And if you then select the whole paragraph and apply Normal, none of the paragraph is italic, but "cat" still has Emphasis style!
There’s a new "Automatically update" checkbox that you can check when defining styles. It sounds harmless, but it could be an invitation to disaster: manual changes to one styled paragraph are incorporated into its definition and applied to all paragraphs in that style. This can provide buggy and surprising results, especially when combined with paragraph style inheritance (discussed above); stay away from it.
Doc Worker — It appears, though I have not seen it, that the printed documentation included with Word 98 is no longer a complete manual, but instead a 245-page "Getting Results" book that focuses on performing common tasks, not on learning concepts or learning everything there is to know about a particular feature. In the previous generation of Office applications, I found Microsoft’s printed manuals to be remarkably good for learning and reference, and it’s a shame to see this standard lowered. [Our manuals arrived hours before this issue was finalized, and although they may work acceptably for intermediate users who upgrade, new users and power users alike will come away disappointed in the lack of detail. -Adam]
In lieu of a reference manual, the user is apparently expected to resort to online help. But the online help is sometimes wrong, often omits useful information, and rarely gives a detailed, conceptual overview of a complex topic. To give a trivial example: I wanted to know how to show the Document Map pane; the Help pages told me about a Toolbar button, but it barely mentioned the Document Map item in the View menu.
Also, online help is clumsy to navigate, including moving back and forth between the Office Assistant and MS Word Help. My wrist aches from all the mouse-clicking it entails. Help is broken up into many documents – MS Word Help, MS Word VBA Help, MS Office VBA Help, and so on; you must be in the right one before you can do an index search on it.
Final Word — No program of Word 98’s size and complexity can be without bugs and problems. But Microsoft has made it clear that these will be attended to as they are found. Here are some URLs that may help:
I’ve found Word 98 remarkably solid and crash-proof. It’s also an amazingly good Mac citizen: the only extension conflict on my machine seems to be a relatively minor one with TypeTamer. This is a far cry from my experience with Word 6, which had bugs and conflicts that took ages to work out.
So, what’s the bottom line? If you’ve been using Word 6 on a PowerPC-based Mac, don’t even pause for reflection: upgrade to Word 98!
If you’ve been using Word 5.1 you should at least look into the matter. Clearly, if your hardware forbids, that’s an end to it. But if not, and if your objections to Word 6 were aesthetic or moral, then Word 98 deserves serious consideration. It’s true that you’ll have a major transition to make: Word 98 is big, complicated, and often confusing, and nothing can hide that fact. But you might find that it’s also more powerful, more useful, and – dare I say it? – more fun.
Upgrades cost $299 for the entire Microsoft Office 98 suite, or $149 for Word 98 alone. New users pay $499 for Office 98 or $399 for Word 98 alone. Those are list prices – street prices run $50 to $75 lower. For academic users, Microsoft Office 98 runs $199 and Word 98 alone is $129. A Microsoft Office 98 Gold Edition costs about $100 more and includes FrontPage 1.0, Encarta 98 Deluxe, and Bookshelf 98.