Microsoft Word is the cornerstone of Microsoft’s Office suite, and the single Office application one is most likely to obtain separately. Spreadsheets are important, presentations are nice, but word processing remains the most common personal and business productivity task on computers, and Microsoft Word has established itself as the industry benchmark in word processing.
Those of us who remember Word 4 or Word 5.1 know that Word was once straightforward, intuitive, and compact. Word 6 was slow, overwhelming, and looked and acted like a cross-platform port. In response to the highly negative reactions to Word 6, Microsoft gave Word 98 a revised interface and provided a much smoother, more pleasant user experience. Now Word 2001 tries, through yet more interface tweaks, to give users better access to some of the powerful features lurking beneath the surface.
Interface tweaks are almost entirely what’s new in this version of Word, and they’re laid sporadically on top of a massive core that seems essentially unchanged from the previous version. Considering that Word is a large, complex, mature product, that’s understandable, though it makes the upgrade decision significantly more difficult.
Initial Impressions — Installation was a breeze. You need about 175 MB of free disk space for the full Office suite, but then you can just copy the Office folder from the CD-ROM to your hard disk. (Alternatively, you can use an installer application, but there seems little reason to bother.) The first time I started up Word, it took a minute to install the new shared libraries and to register the various Office components; subsequent startups were instantaneous.
The transition from Word 98 was similarly painless; I barely knew that anything had happened. Word 2001 picked up my old Normal template, including my toolbar settings, menu modifications, and macros, so the environment looked completely familiar. But my other document templates, and my startup documents, had to be transferred manually from the Templates and Office:Startup folders within the main Microsoft Office folder. The one obnoxious feature of the installation is that it adds a dozen new fonts.
Word’s demands on memory are significant; under Mac OS 9 with virtual memory off, running Word swelled my system heap by nearly 4 MB, with Word itself occupying another 17 MB. Virtual memory improved things a lot, bringing Word’s usage down to 10 MB and the system heap footprint down to 1 MB. If you prefer RAM Doubler to Apple’s virtual memory, there’s bad news: Word is incompatible with RAM Doubler 9 and earlier; Connectix is reportedly working on an update. Compatibility otherwise appears excellent; for example, Word 2001 now works fine with Power On Software’s Action Menus (Word 98 didn’t).
The Obvious and the Hidden — Word 2001’s newly polished interface looks almost entirely like Word 98’s; one senses only subconsciously that the palette background and many palette icons have been redesigned. Whether you find this prettier is a matter of taste, but I’m happy with the results; for example, the new magnifying glass suggests "Find" to me better than the old binoculars. Gone is Word 98’s thoroughly annoying status bar, which occupied the entire bottom of your screen real estate; it’s now incorporated into each document window, which is splendid (This change alone makes the update worthwhile to TidBITS Technical Editor Geoff Duncan, who constantly needs Word documents on a monitor separate from the one carrying Word 98’s status bar). Docked toolbars also no longer waste screen real estate with empty gray regions; instead they occupy only the space necessary.
The most obvious new kid on the interface block is the Formatting Palette. It’s a floating window that, unlike a toolbar, you can’t customize, resize, or dock, although you can collapse and expand each of its several sections. The sections, which change automatically to match the currently selected text or object, incorporate buttons and fields from various palettes and dialogs. For example, there are typically sections for character font and style, paragraph alignment and spacing, paragraph borders and shading, and document layout. Thus, it brings into one place a lot of essential context-appropriate functionality that many users otherwise might not find. Unfortunately, what’s not deemed essential is simply absent and you can’t add it, unlike Word’s customizable toolbars. I’d describe the Formatting Palette as both comforting and a significant time-saver, but not as helpful as it might have been.
Word 2001 renames the standard New command to New Blank Document and bumps it down in the File menu, encouraging users instead to choose Project Gallery, which is now the first thing in the File Menu. Project Gallery summons a revised dialog for selecting not just a template or wizard, but even a document type from another Office application, such as an Excel workbook or an Entourage calendar event (these open in their proper applications, of course). Microsoft’s goal here is to help users get started with a variety of project types; templates and wizards aren’t new, but perhaps this dialog will prove a more encouraging front end, as well as giving Office some sense of unity.
The Office Clipboard is a new palette which, while open, accumulates data each time you copy; you can then select any of its data to paste it. It thus implements multiple clipboards. Drag & drop works too, and data in the Office Clipboard survives across restarts and across context switches to other Office applications – the same Office Clipboard appears in Excel, PowerPoint, and Word. In an unsettling oversight, however, it’s absent from Entourage (and Internet Explorer), diluting the additional sense of unity the Office Clipboard provides.
Word has long had basic graphics tools; Word 2001 adds to these with Photoshop-like capabilities such as inserting an image directly from a scanner or digital camera; changing brightness, contrast, color balance; and applying effects such as embossing or chrome. Although these features may seem unnecessary feature bloat, digital images are increasingly common, and it’s not unreasonable for Microsoft to provide Office users with simple image manipulation tools. What feels awkward is using these tools within Word; one wonders why Microsoft didn’t unify and break out all the graphics tools into a separate Office application.
Many other small changes lurk behind the scenes, emerging only when you need them. A brilliant new Find and Replace option lets you search for morphological variants on the same stem: for example, searching for "type", you can also find "types", "typing", and "typed", and replace them with "writes", "writing", and "wrote"! The Data Merge Manager is a palette-based front end to mail-merge, concentrating in one place the steps needed to perform a merge. However, the merge itself is the same old arcane field-based merge, so the Data Merge Manager is like a band-aid plastered over a major wound.
In addition to the spelling dictionary, there is now a definition dictionary (Control-click a word and choose Define), but my first try was almost my last, when I selected "automatically" and got a definition of "automatic drip" (in fact, though it generally works properly, it often matches adverbs incorrectly). AutoCorrect’s inline emendations of errors can now come not only from its explicit list, but also from the main spelling dictionary; this feature is not as effective as I could wish, however, since it often does not operate even when there can be little doubt what the error is. For example, Word corrects "misaprehnsions" properly despite it not being in the AutoCorrect list, but it won’t automatically correct "typoing", even though the spelling dictionary knows that it’s wrong and provides only one suggested replacement.
Tables can finally be nested, as in Word for Windows, and adjacent table cells can also be merged not just horizontally but also vertically, finally allowing Word to mimic HTML tables. In Page view, you can now double-click anywhere on the page, and Word automatically supplies returns and tabs to let you start typing there. The Office Assistant animated sprite is now smoothly resizable and easily banished via the Help menu.
Bugs Fixed and Unfixed — It’s difficult to know exactly which bugs Microsoft fixed. One assumes that changes incorporated into Word 98 through the various updaters released over the years are present here. Thus, for example, I would hope that the bug where umlaut-y suddenly starts replacing all your text is absent, but I can’t be sure. I can testify, though, that no longer do Word Work files visibly gum up your hard disk every time you save (they still proliferate, but they’re properly hidden in the invisible Temporary Items folder), and that Excel charts with vertical text pasted into Word print correctly.
On the other hand, old bugs and annoyances certainly abound. The character obtained by typing Option-i Shift-e is still invisible, a serious problem when using certain foreign or dingbat fonts. The pop-up Style menu in the Formatting toolbar and in the Formatting Palette is still too short and in an incomprehensible order. Word’s drawing tools still differ somewhat from Excel’s (why does Word lack Excel’s "Connectors" graphic type in the AutoShapes toolbar?).
When "tooltips" pop up near the cursor and then vanish, the covered text is often not restored. When you select a comment or footnote in its own pane, the main text still scrolls so that the comment or footnote marker is at the top of the window, with the bulk of the related text scrolled off the top. Scrolling using the Page Up/Page Down keys still moves the cursor, forcing you to reposition it constantly. In my Word 98 review I described some problems with interdependency of styles, and with the muddy interaction between character styles and paragraph styles; these problems remain.
The interface for numbered lists remains mysterious: when I start a numbered list, I can never guess whether Word will restart numbering or resume it where an earlier list left off; and having created two numbered lists, I pressed the numbered lists button on the Formatting Palette to start a third, and discovered that Word had wrecked the numbering of the first two. In general, trying to perform major edits on large documents consisting entirely of numbering was frustrating; it required creative manipulation of the paragraph marks that contain each paragraph’s formatting information to avoid completely screwing up the numbering throughout.
Help of the Helpless — Learning Word remains a hard task, not least because there is no printed manual at all, not even the slim task-based one that came with Word 98. Regular readers of TidBITS are probably aware that I regard this situation as unconscionable, and Adam has lamented it in a now-famous article, "The Death of Documentation."
Users are thrown back instead upon Word’s online help. The good news first: it’s better than it was! The Help window is no longer a separate application with its own menu, yet living mysteriously inside Word. It is now a perfectly standard floating window. In addition to the Back button, there is now a Forward button. And the Table of Contents appears as a scrolling panel at the left of the window.
Nevertheless, Help navigation is lame, in part due to Help being a floating window. There are no keyboard shortcuts. The pages have an order and a hierarchy; yet there is no command for navigating to the next page, or upward in the hierarchy. And the contents panel doesn’t show where you are in the main panel. (Contrast an Adobe Acrobat document with contents at the left; your current place in the main window is always indicated in the contents.) These problems are particularly acute after a search; you click on a search result to see that page in the help window, and you’re instantly lost – at an unknown point of an unknown topic.
The Help content is selective and terse, and sometimes downright incomplete and incorrect. For instance, I couldn’t find anything about the Office Clipboard or the Compare Documents feature. And in the entry about the Microsoft Office Resource Kit (an actual paper manual for Word that costs extra from Microsoft Press), the URL to the Web version is wrong (and impossible to select cleanly). Online help, with its brief individual screens, is like a television sound bite – it jogs the user’s memory, but can’t substitute for continuous, reasoned instruction. This program needs a manual! And at these prices, customers deserve one.
Last Word — Believe it or not, I like Word 2001. It tries to be all things to all people and succeeds in large measure. It’s absolutely packed with useful, powerful features. A complete beginner can write a letter, a novel, a brochure, even a Web page. (HTML export is improved over Word 98, but make sure to switch to "Save only display information into HTML" when saving or suffer truly awful HTML code.) A moderately experienced user can write a paper suitable for submission to a scholarly journal. An expert can write a large complicated document with automatic numbering of figures, tables, and chapters, and an automatically generated table of contents. It’s customizable to a fare-thee-well, and contains oodles of shortcuts and automation features, including Visual Basic, one of the best scripting languages in the known universe.
Microsoft has tried hard to make this version of Word easier to use than the previous one, and in many ways they’ve succeeded. But these surface tweaks have been applied in a haphazard fashion – some aspects of Word are significantly easier to use, whereas others remain accessible only through cryptic toolbar icons or by navigating three layers of dialog. My personal customer research shows that extremely smart people remain befuddled by many features in Word; yet Microsoft claims that your Mom in Altoona can use Word easily. Quick, explain the difference between AutoCorrect, AutoComplete, and AutoText! Describe how to change all underlines to italics! I rest my case.
From a historical point of view, I also find this upgrade disappointing – by now, I would have liked to see Microsoft reaching deep inside Word, rethinking its internals, paring some bloat, unifying the Office applications, but instead, we get still more little pieces glued on round the outside. Still, Word 2001 will surely become the next dominant word processor on the Macintosh (as the latest version of Word has tended to be in the computer industry in general), and it’s more elegant and polished than Word 98.
So, should you upgrade? It is far from compulsory; if you’re comfortable with Word 98, you may indeed have no reason to do so. Word 98 works reasonably well, thanks to the online updaters. And document compatibility between Word 98 and Word 2001, and with Word 97 and Word 2000 on Windows, seems complete, so you won’t miss out on sharing information with others.
However, if you’re at all irritated with Word 98 and you don’t mind the cost (or can find a good price – I heard from one student who could buy Office 2001 at the campus bookstore for $33), yes, you should upgrade to Word 2001. I can’t advise you more specifically, because individual users all have their own priorities. For example, I received an email message yesterday from someone who will upgrade because he wants Word 2001’s capability to render footnotes in HTML; others might scoff, but for him, that priority is crystal-clear and perfectly correct.
Microsoft Word 2001 requires a PowerPC-based machine with a 120 MHz or faster processor, running Mac OS 8.1 or later. If you have virtual memory on, Microsoft recommends at least 32 MB of RAM (48 MB under Mac OS 9). Microsoft Office 2001 costs $500 or $300 to upgrade from an earlier version; there’s also a $100 rebate if you buy the complete version within 60 days of purchasing a new iMac or iBook. Word alone costs $400, with upgrades to just Word at $150.