2007 for developers
At the Office System Developer Conference in Seattle in March, Bill Gates and Steven Sinofsky boasted that Office 2007 would be “amazing”, “revolutionary” and “dramatically better” for not just the end user but also the developer who wants to build solutions using Office. Would you expect them to say anything different? They also opined that Office 2007 “bridges the gap” between structured and unstructured data, since its new OpenXML file format allows you to put structured data into unstructured documents while still keeping the structure intact. They also took the opportunity to announce a new organisation and website, openxmldeveloper.org, which will promote the use of and information about these new file formats. In an effort to smooth the transition to the new formats, Microsoft has also agreed to release more information about the old binary file formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint than has been available up until now.
The new file formats were covered in some depth in later sessions at the conference, but Microsoft hopes end users won’t see much of a difference. It’s releasing converters so that older versions of Office (2003, XP and 2000, but not Office 97 or earlier) will be able to open and save the new files. However, these new formats bring with them many new features that will get lost or degraded when converted back to or opened with older versions of Office. For example, opening a complex Word 2007 document with an older version of Word will work if you just want to read or print the file, but I wouldn’t want to edit that document in the older application and then send it back to a Word 2007 user to finish off – too many of the new features would have become mangled by then. For instance, Content Controls, the new replacements for form fields, bookmarks and XML Tags, will get replaced with plain text when opened in Compatibility mode, which loses all the Content Controls’ validation and protection settings and their links to XML data in the document – you won’t get these things back when you re-open in 2007. Simpler documents will fare much better and, if all a document contains is text and images with paragraph and character formatting, you shouldn’t see many problems.
At the moment, Excel’s converters aren’t doing nearly so well as Word’s. Excel 2007’s graphics are so far ahead of even Excel 2003 that simple line graphs won’t appear right. Excel 2003 and below have a limited number of colours, and the placement and formatting of legends and axes can be sent awry on conversion. These faults will probably be fixed by October, when Office 2007 is due to be released to businesses, but there are still many new features that can’t be directly represented in the older versions of Excel at all. The new Table feature, for instance, has great filtering, formatting and summary features, but under the older versions these are downgraded or absent, leaving you with just the static data.
PowerPoint is in an interesting position when it comes to compatibility with previous versions. Its major new functionality lies in the new diagramming tool and, if you try to edit a slide that contains a diagram using an older version of PowerPoint, the only thing you’ll be able to do is move or resize the entire diagram. This may result in the diagram looking squashed if you don’t resize it proportionately. Open the presentation again in PowerPoint 2007 and all the diagramming tools are available again to work on the diagram you resized, and it may also get redrawn to its previous aspect ratio and so look slightly different. This is a good compromise: the diagram behaves like a static image while being edited in previous versions but preserves all its rich data behind the scenes for use when it gets back to Office 2007.