The mobile Office

Office 2007 has been publicly available for six months now and had been available in several beta test releases for a year before that, so how is it that Microsoft hasn’t yet released any support for its new XML-based file formats for either Office on the Mac or for the new Windows Mobile 6 smartphone and PDA platform? These new file formats can’t have come as a surprise to either of the departments responsible for these products.

The mobile Office

Devices running Windows Mobile 6 are just now beginning to appear in the UK, starting with the S710 Smartphone from HTC. When I met with the developers and programme managers from the Windows Mobile division at TechEd last November, they told me they intended to have native support for the new Office 2007 file formats in the next release. It’s taken a while for the device manufacturers to build and ship these new phones, but it’s a huge disappointment to find that the Word, Excel and PowerPoint versions built into Windows Mobile 6 can’t deal with the new formats at all. The documentation says they support Office 97 and above, but that actually means Office 97 to 2003, and if you try sending an Office 2007 file to a Windows Mobile 6 device it simply won’t open, merely complaining about an “Unknown file format”.

To send an Office 2007 file to a Windows Mobile device, you’ll first have to save it in 97-2003 format, which cuts you off from many of the new features of Office 2007. Indeed, while it’s nice to see any Office Mobile application on the smartphone platform (now officially known as Windows Mobile 6 Standard), they’re very limited in what they can cope with. Don’t, for instance, think you can email a big Word document to yourself, to your colleagues or your boss to edit on their smartphone on the train. Anything but the most basic formatting is likely to crash Word Mobile, and even the simplest of formatting can look very different on the mobile platform.

Word Mobile

Word documents transferred to Word Mobile can use different fonts and type sizes and, although you probably won’t see much difference between typefaces on the limited screen of a smartphone, different font sizes do show up clearly. Text and background colours may not be rendered accurately, although bold, italic, underline and highlighting do seem to come through okay. Left-, centre- and right-justified text is rendered properly, but full justification is rendered exactly the same as left justification. You can’t see page breaks, section breaks or columns at all, and while tables come through fine, table borders don’t and nor indeed do paragraph borders. Images will show up on the device, but only if they’re embedded in-line with text: if you try to wrap text around an image in Word, the mobile version will just show an “image should go here” icon but not the image itself, and any fancy effects such as drop shadows just don’t come out on the mobile device at all. SmartArt, a new feature in Word 2007, converts to static images in Word 97-2003 format – these images will work on a mobile device but, again, only if they’re in-line with the text.

On a smartphone, Word Mobile can display a lot more document features than the user can actually create on the phone. Let’s start with the fact that there’s actually no way to create a new document: the nearest you can get is to copy an empty document onto the device, open that whenever you want a new document and remember to use Save As rather than Save when you’ve finished creating the text (see Paul Ockenden’s Mobile & Wireless column for his take on this). Since this achieves exactly the same thing as creating a new document the proper way, why Microsoft felt obliged not to provide an official way is utterly beyond me. You can scroll around a document moving a line or a screen-full at a time and you can edit, insert or delete text by simply typing it. You can also mark words, one at a time, to be displayed in bold, italic, underlined or highlighted, but not in blocks. You can save or email a document to someone else, and that’s about it.

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