Office improvements

Microsoft has announced, via an official blog, that we can expect Service Pack 2 for the 2007 Office system sometime between February and April 2009, but is still being cagey about what will be included. Some details are emerging, though: Microsoft has already said that Open Document Format (ODF), Portable Document Format (PDF) and XML Paper Specification (XPS) will feature in SP2. These formats for editable (ODF) and non-editable (PDF and XPS) documents have, up until SP2, been provided by add-ons. The PDF and XPS formats were meant to be built in to Office 2007 from the start, and indeed they were during the beta programme, but a legal spat with Adobe forced them to be relegated to free downloadable add-ons in the final release version. Now Microsoft and Adobe seem to be friends again, so Office 2007 will be allowed to save documents directly into Adobe’s PDF and Microsoft’s rival XPS formats without an add-on.

Office improvements

Several projects in the last couple of years have aimed to add ODF support to Office 2007 (including an open-source one sponsored by Microsoft), but none has been terribly successful: often they employ menus different from the standard File | Open… and File | Save As… and leave users with badly converted, read-only copies of their document, and no clue as to which bits aren’t properly converted. Service Pack 2 will change all this with a proper implementation of ODF 1.1, written by Microsoft and incorporated as a fully fledged Office file format on a par with DOC, XLS, PPT, DOCX, XLSX and PPTX. That’s not to say there won’t be differences between Microsoft’s ODF implementation and rivals such as OpenOffice – Microsoft is implementing ODF 1.1, while OpenOffice 3 uses ODF 1.2 (which hasn’t yet been submitted to ISO for standardisation).

There are also distinct differences in the way Microsoft Office and OpenOffice work baked right into their competing file formats, which will inevitably compromise the features available and the visual fidelity of documents when changing format or loading a “foreign” format file. However, some people who’ve tried the new ODF support report being pleasantly surprised by how much it’s improved in fidelity over the Microsoft-sponsored, third-party developed, open-source add-on featured on SourceForge. Microsoft has decided that if you’re working in a foreign format document it won’t disable features that can’t be saved in that format, but will warn you when you come to save the document which aspects will be lost.

The announcement this month is about other improvements coming in Office 2007 SP2. Outlook will get faster performance in certain areas and improved reliability in its Calendaring module. I hope this means drag-and-drop within and between calendars will work less erratically than it does now. You should be able to ungroup Smart Art diagrams and animate them in PowerPoint. Charting functionality should be improved in Excel, and the charting Object Model extended to Word and PowerPoint as well. Visio will be able to export UML models to XMI standard-compliant documents and security will be enhanced, supporting all cryptographic algorithms offered by the OS. On the server side, there will be performance, manageability and stability improvements to SharePoint Services and Office Project Server.

What Microsoft still won’t confirm is whether the updated OOXML file formats, ratified as ISO/IEC standard 29500, will be delivered in SP2 or will have to wait for another service pack when Office “14” finally ships in about a year’s time. The same question mark hangs over the Compatibility Pack for Office 2000, XP and 2003; Microsoft just won’t say if, or when, ISO 29500 file formats will be available in these versions. All in all, Office 2007 SP2 should be a welcome upgrade, coming some six months before the expected availability of the next version, Office “14”, which will probably be called Office 2010.

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