Friday, January 26, 2007

Microsoft Office 2007 Review

I just attended the launch event for Microsoft Office 2007 here in Cleveland this Wednesday, and one of the great things about attending this event is the fact that Microsoft was nice enough to provide me with a free copy of Office 2007 Pro Plus. I have been looking forward to using the final version (I had played with some early Beta versions) for a while, and I expect this latest incarnation of MS Office to be well received by the public, especially because of some of the larger and sweeping changes throughout the office suite. You can obtain a 60-day trial via that link above if interested.

Let me start by admitting that I do not use ALL of the Microsoft Office Suite products on a regular basis. My usage patterns concentrate on Excel and Word in particular - these are daily-use applications for me, and Excel is an absolute requirement in my daily life. So, that is what I focused on in my examination of Office 2007, although I did check out the latest features in Access, Publisher, Powerpoint, and Outlook too - just to a lesser degree.

The 30-second review
I will immediately migrate to using Excel 2007, since there are HUGE improvements to the application that I have long wanted. Aside from Excel, the Office 2007 upgrade is certainly an incremental step forward and its new user-interface menus/contextual-options "ribbons" substantially increase usability. But, aside from the improvements to Excel, I personally did not see any drop-dead "must have" features, though it's plenty "OK" overall.

Office Suite-Wide New Features
  • Live Previews - this enables you to see (in your DOC/XLS/PPT files you are working with) the effects of a menu-item-action as you hover over that item, and before really applying it to your selection. This is wonderful for all users, as it should save a lot of unnecessary "undo" operations and re-trying yet another menu-item/option to obtain the desired results.
  • Themes - a sort of collection of styles. This is certainly welcome. I still need to see if the applications can export such collections of formats for use in another spreadsheet or document - I planned to test that, but didn't get around to it yet.
  • Charting now is a common Feature / Component throughout Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. This means you no longer need to revert to the creating-application to edit/format a chart that is embedded inside a document or presentation.
  • Removing "hidden info" in files. Many people are unaware that when they currently save Word documents and other Office files, that there may be some leftover data in the files even after you thought you edited-out or deleted such information (this data is otherwise visible to anyone else that knows how to access it - like, just opening a Word document with Notepad to reveal "deleted" data that is really just invisible in Word, but not gone completely) . There are now ways to "scrub" the files before sending, so all of that potentially confidential information is removed before sending a file to someone else. It's a bit crazy to even have to worry about this, but it really does exist as a problem in earlier versions of Office.
  • PDF/XPS (XML Paper Specification) from apps - via a free downloadable plugin. I find it whacky that you have to download it, but I think the reasoning had to do with Adobe threatening to sue or something.
  • "Ribbons" as the interface in Word, Excel, Access, Outlook (partial), and PowerPoint. I like them - and, I think they are a HUGE timesaver. They took nearly no time to get used to.
  • The graphics and artwork throughout the Office 2007 user interface generally look really sharp and professional and consistent.
  • Shared dictionary abilities - yes, Word and Excel, etc. share some global dictionary settings like when you instruct the dictionary to learn new words.
  • Surprise: Microsoft is really pushing SharePoint 2007 with Office 2007. Many of the new features target SharePoint.
New Excel 2007 Features
  • HUGE IMPROVEMENTS! I am absolutely thrilled with the improvements to Excel 2007. If you rely heavily on spreadsheets in your day to day operations, you will certainly appreciate the improvements. Excel is finally automatically performing common steps I always needed to do manually otherwise - especially with tables of data (which, in my opinion are the number one reason for using Excel).
  • The new "Format as Tables" ability simply rocks! Excel 2007 finally understands what the user is trying to accomplish with data tables, and makes logical decisions about extending the functionality of your rows and columns of data. This includes automatic auto-filtering of the data in tables (finally)! Constrained columns, total rows, and calculated columns that know to repeat formulas in each row, etc. It is finally a spreadsheet of my dreams (well, not 100%, but heck of a lot closer - my dreams have it nearing the point of higher pseudo-intelligence).
  • A data-connections manager in Excel. For those users that are pulling data in from places like SQL-Server and other disparate data-stores, this is a very welcome addition. Multiple data-sources per sheet, and easy to manage. I have only begun to tap into this, but I'm already thinking that Excel 2007 may just be my application front-end for some "dream apps" I have in store.
  • Conditional Formatting - powerful! Just as with "themes" in the apps, I still need to see if it can export such formats for use in another spreadsheet, since I would often have a "standard theme" or look/feel I would like in all my spreadsheets (and docs, etc). Regardless, the user interface for conditional formatting is quite nice.
  • Huge capacity increases if you need it - rows/columns, etc. And, for me, most importantly is cell-formatting option increases - more colors, etc. Excel always sucked for limiting you to a handful of colors when you have an awesome graphics machine at your disposal... yes, you now have the ability to use 16 million colors! This is very useful in data visualization and condition-representation and recognition.
  • Pivot tables - interface is much better, and should make it easier for the typical user to understand and manipulate pivot tables.
  • Page-Layout view (see how it'll be printed before printing) - this was an area of functionality that always needed help in earlier versions. I am really glad this got some attention in Excel 2007!

New Word 2007 Features

  • Themes are one of the biggest for me, allowing simpler re-use of a common look/feel throughout documents.
  • Not much else really grabs me and makes me think I must use Word 2007.
  • Mainly it is the "ribbons" UI focus, and some enhanced pre-designed formats, SharePoint sharing, etc., that standout - all of which are "nice to have" but not requirements for me.

New Access 2007 Features

I RARELY use Access, but I may consider playing with it a bit more to see if it can handle some of my smaller development requirements - though, I will focus more on Excel at first. It does offer these improvements:

  • Enhanced sorting/filtering capabilities.
  • Layout view allows design changes while you browse data (it's about time given that many other tools have had this ability for many years).
  • Split-forms: this is some newly updated master-detail forms improvement / feature. It looks interesting, but I have not played with it in detail yet.
  • Multi-valued fields - does just what it sounds like it would, allowing you to store multiple values in one field. I find this interesting, and I wonder how they are storing the multiple values in one field - my guess is it's using MSDE's / SQL's XML datatype to do it, and XQuery to parse the data as it goes in/out of field. This is handy for when data-normalization would otherwise get out of control.
  • Shading alternate rows in a grid is easy now (so it says). About time. That should be a feature of all grid components in my view.
  • Some report grouping abilities improvements have been implemented. I don't often use Access for reporting, though many do. Just to see how it compares to reporting solutions I use, I do intent to try Access 2007 reporting features out when I get a chance.

New Powerpoint 2007 features

  • Smart Art - rather interesting way to convert lists/bullets into graphical representations in a presentation, though I won't likely use the feature.
  • In general, I don't use PowerPoint much, so I don't really have any opinion one way or the other about the rest of the Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 functionality. It's a presentation application, and I am personally annoyed by all the powerpoint presentations I've seen over the years :)

New Outlook 2007 Features

I'm not sure I'll use Outlook 2007, since I rarely use Outlook any more to begin with. There are some new features that may be of use to you though, especially in a corporate Email environment. These include:

  • Finally, if I understand what the video I reviewed claims, you can search all the Outlook data at once (supposedly), and it is fast (from pre-indexing Outlook data behind the scenes all the time). What I didn't see demo'd was searching in sub-folders (which did not work in earlier versions and was vary lame). I hope Outlook 2007 at least does that correctly.
  • There is a new focus on the ability to "color anything", and it is helpful to see things color-coded - like Email categories, task categories, calendaring, etc. It looks nice and all. Though, I very seriously doubt I will migrate to it any time soon.

New Publisher 2007 Features

I rarely use Publisher, as I consider it a much too limited for any real publishing and layout requirements. Sure, Publisher 2007 has incrementally improved and even implemented some features that attempt to make it more of a pre-press type of tool, but quite honestly if you plan to go to press with any significant content, get Adobe InDesign CS2 instead - that application is amazingly powerful by comparison, and can handle doing entire large books and more with ease. If your budget is constrained and you own Office already, I guess Publisher is worth a try first.

Other new Office 2007 Products

The next two product "reviews" are only from what I could see on the video-CD Microsoft gave me at the launch-event. This CD was by the way LAME AS HECK, since only 95MB of a 700MB CD is used, and it includes "video" of screen captures and NetMeeting sessions that were recorded over SLOW connections and display in terribly low-res and poor quality. They could have at least created some GOOD higher-res quality videos to distribute to attendees.

New Project 2007 Features

Though not included in our free download, there is a lame video of the new features I watched. And, to give you a feeling of why I see Microsoft Project 2007 as in incremental update, they tout the "multiple undo" as one big new feature. That should give you a feel for how little has changed. Sure, some new formatting and graphical polish exist, some new features that are perhaps useful exist, but overall it's still MS Project, and they didn't even carry the new Ribbon-interface through to it from what I could tell.

In the past, I used Microsoft Project quite a bit and was rather well versed in project management using the tool. And, I think the last version I really used much was Project 98. Looking at the new version, so little has changed in the past 10 years that I feel quite comfortable I could jump right into using Project 2007 and be immediately productive. This is a good thing in that my skills are still up-to-date, but it also demonstrates how little the fundamentals of project-management software have changed.

New Visio 2007 Features

Microsoft Visio 2007 was also not included in my free software, but the MS video CD touts it as being as precise as a CADD system, and a full-featured drawing tool; in fact, they seem to want it to be a do-all for diagramming and drawing and more.

I don't know. I have used Visio since way, way back before Microsoft even owned Visio. I generally always HATED Visio and found it to be anything but intuitive, and quite restrictive in that it prevented me from using it in the way I wanted too.

It certainly has potential for a process-visualization engine, but it seems overly complex and bloated to me. This tool has become a "catch-all" for data and process visualization, diagramming, and so much more. Yes, it can do some cool stuff, but it also seems to take a rather in-depth knowledge and understanding of all its features to even be somewhat productive with it.

Regardless of my own lack of need for this tool, some of the new Microsoft Visio 2007 features include:

  • "auto-connect shapes" on a page - though it's rather limited to shapes immediately next to each other, it does speed some diagramming and flow-linking operations.
  • Data-visualization is their big push with Visio 2007, and is has the ability to show external data in various graphical formats including "pivoting" data. Nifty and all, but what value does this offer over Excel aside from pretty pictures/shapes to accompany what matters most - the data/values?
  • Data-linking to external data, and drag database record to shape(s) automatically. What that does I don't know, but it was mentioned. heh.
  • Reverse the direction of a line (arrow) -- ooohh boy! About time, but this is a "feature"?
Well, that covers my brief overview of Microsoft Office 2007 New Features and such. As I dive deeper into each of the components of the office suite, and further exploit new capabilities of each, I will return here with additional thoughts, tips, and techniques.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The "XXX pound Gorilla" - phrase of the moment?

It seems like hardly a day goes by without someone on a TV news program describing something as a certain-number-of-pound Gorilla. I am so utterly sick of hearing about the "800 pound gorilla" on CNBC when someone is describing a particular company; and on CNN or FOX News, it seems I am hearing about the "1000 pound gorilla" of the elections race, and on and on. I do believe CNBC is the worst with this infatuation over gorilla metaphors, as nearly every guest and host has made reference to a variation of it. Is this what they teach reporters in Journalism school, or what corporate spokespersons are taught in business school? I would like to think not.

What has happened to English and our ability to describe something as being large, exceptionally large, large on a relative scale, and so on when we need to without using a phrase about a gorilla?? With so many well known objects of substantial proportion in the world, why has the gorilla been chosen as the popular one for comparative sizing discussions now? Is it because man has pushed it to near-extinction? Doubt it. Is it because our genetics have 99% in common? Doubt it. Fact is, I have not a single clue what the attraction to this terminology has its roots in. Whatever the basis, it has reached epidemic proportions lately.

Are we doomed to have this gorilla-phrasing become part of the accepted dialect here in the US (and abroad - I swear I have heard UK reporters and other use it to)!? Please, stop using this utterly lame metaphorical catastrophe that seems to have the entire media enamored at the moment.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Idiocracy - the movie. Hilarious or Scary?

If you want to get a good laugh, you need to check out the movie Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson as Joe Bauer. I never heard of the film before seeing the movie from Blockbuster today, and I am glad we took the chance on it being worth watching.

This movie was an absolute laugh-fest for me and is a complete riot. Here's a summary of the plot quoted from the IMDM site:
Joe Bauer, an Army librarian, is judged to be absolutely average in every regard, has no relatives, has no future, so he's chosen to be one of the two test subjects in a top-secret hibernation program. He and hooker Rita were to awaken in one year, but things go wrong and they wake up instead in 2505. By this time, stupid people have out bred intelligent people; the world is (barely) run by morons--and Joe and Rita are the smartest people in America.
The movie takes quite a few jabs at the current media culture in the world, and the domination of the corporate-advertising "diet" we are all fed, and how these corporations basically run the government, and how ultimately this, coupled with the lack of any focus on education, will lead to a world filled with nothing but morons. I would sure like to think this could not happen, but there is always that small part of me that thinks if things were let to go too far, it certainly could be a possibility.

The main thing to keep in mind here is this movie is just outrageously hilarious, and should be worth the rental fee. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I know I got my week's worth of laughs packed into a couple hours!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2007 - what has my attention.

This is a huge week in consumer electronics, with both the 2007 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) going on in Vegas, and the Macworld event in San Francisco.

The main device announced this week that everyone seems focused on is Apple's "i-Phone". I have seen it in action only on TV, since I did not attend the Apple event. From what I have seen, I must admit, it really looks to be near the pinnacle of gadget perfection. With a color touchscreen and a wonderfully well thought out user interface that makes great use of the touchscreen abilities, it is sure to be a hit even at the somewhat high $499.00 USD suggested retail.

Apple really does seem to be executing quite well in the design and usability arena. Their products end up with nearly a cult-like following, and their stock price reflects the expectations that the i-Phone further up the ante for Apple's competition. Today alone the price over $7.00 (8%!) on the news of the i-Phone and Apple-TV announcements. The user interface on this i-Phone looks nothing short of stunning in all the demonstrations today, which certainly is having an effect of investors. Apple knows how to get publicity too -- nearly every major news program had segments on this release of the i-Phone, and that is one hell of a lot of free publicity!

And, back at the CES event, there was even Apple related news, with another company called Axiotron announcing the first true Mac Tablet computer. This company is founded by a former manager from Apple. Of definite note (to me) is the wonderfully large 13.3" pen-input display, that can be used for all sorts of applications on the machine that runs OS-X (Tiger):
"The Axiotron ModBook enables its user to draw and write directly on the screen, while the handwriting recognition built into Mac OS X Tiger not only turns hand scribbles into text in every application, but also provides extended control of the system through gesture recognition,"
By comparison, news over on the PC side of things is a bit odd to say the least. Well, I say this because of a quote from Michael Dell (Dell Computers), where he states:
that "customer imagination" would be the most important driver for innovation during the year.
And, then Dell (the company) goes on to make announcements like this one:
At the center of Dell's product announcements at CES is the XPS 710 H2C. The $5,499 system is engineered to bring peak performance to gaming applications. Among the features it an innovative two-stage cooling process using a liquid-to-heat exchanger.
I'm sorry, but I was already having a hard time accepting the $500 price tag of an i-Phone, which is seriously cool, and now Dell starts talking about a killer game-PC that will cost you a third of the price of a low-end car!! Ouch dude! I like games, but really, how many (psycho) gamers are going to spend that amount of money just to have a machine that will be obsoleted by yet another Intel upgrade cycle of quad-core or eight-core or whatever CPUs in the coming months/year?

I haven't seen too much software-related news creeping out of these shows yet, though certainly Microsoft's Vista (next-generation OS) is due out quite soon, and the next release of Mac OS-X may well be announced this week too.

There have been plenty of large-screen TVs being shown on the news, and all sorts of multimedia gadgetry to go ape over if you are into that stuff. My biggest beef with nearly all of this stuff is how it has become bascially "throw away", since hardly any of it can be meaningfully upgraded -- meaning, if you purchased the last version of something, don't count on an upgrade to make your MP3 player an i-Phone or such. Not happening! And, don't think that this wave of consumable electronics (oh, I mean "consumer" electronics) is any different. Get that wallet ready to open over and over and over. Thankfully, I bypassed the entire first few waves of phone and music player gadgetry, and this new i-Phone may just finally be the one to get me. Or, maybe not :)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Home Depot (HD) CEO departure pay - UNREAL!

For all of you who follow Home Depot (NYSE:HD), and the saga surrounding their ridiculously overcompensated CEO that enjoyed substantial personal wealth since starting his job in December of 2000 (even though the stock has actually gone down 7% since then according to CNBC this morning), today's news is just more of the same excess and out of control compensation practices by corporations today.

Keep in mind, this guy is under fire for the fact that he has been raking in a small fortune during his tenure, even though the average stockholder has made nothing.

A quote from a Forbes article on the Home Depot CEO's departure today should give you even more to become sickened by:
"Nardelli has also been under fire by investors for his hefty pay and is leaving with a severance package valued at about $210 million. He became CEO in December 2000."
This is nothing short of obscene! You have got to love it... Nardelli is leaving for being under fire for his hefty pay package, and to leave he gets severance worth $210 MILLION!!! UNREAL! These corporate boards are out of control, and this practice of awarding each other for everything, including for failing, underperforming, departing, you name it... exemplifies the arrogance among the super-compensated upper .01% of the population that will screw the average investor over at any chance they get!

Why can't the Home Depot board of directors just say "you are fired Nardelli... go to the unemployment line like everyone else"?!!? Oh, because that would mean someone may tell them (the board members and other upper-crust management and overpaid cronies) the same thing at a future date instead of securing them a similarly excessive, exoribitant, and obscene pay package for themselves!

It just sickens me that these mega-compensated "elite" of the corporate world can not simply be removed, without further pay or severance packages (certainly without packages that make the average person's expected severance package look like a pittance). For god sakes, they have been rewarded greatly (most likely excessively) for their time at the helm, and already make hundreds, if not thousands, of times what the average worker makes. But yet, they "deserve" these mega-compensation packages to get the boot, retire, or what have you! Why?! We, the average person, need to save the money that we earn from our wages in order to plan for retirement, and yet the ones who make extreme and absurd levels of compensation are not even expected to have to put away funds from their bloated wage-packages, since they are nearly assured of receiving a huge "golden parachute" on departure.

This must change!! There is ZERO incentive for these guys at the top to succeed anymore, since win or fail, they are guaranteed compensation packages that dwarf anything the average person can ever dream of making. In fact, their positions are like winning the lottery now - where, with a single term in a mega-compensated position, an executive can effectively stop working after a few years and live large on their winnings (oh, I mean, "pay"). But, even better, another company always seems to want to hire these same people again and reward them with hoards of cash just for their "experience" and such. I have heard so many times how there is just a lack of available talent for these upper-crust jobs -- give me a break!

So, to get back to the Home Depot (HD) stock story today... what I find amazing is how the stock instantly moves upward in trading today on the news of Nardelli's departure. I guess the average investor does not even care about the fact that this insane compensation practice is obviously deeply entrenched at the boardroom-level of the company, and that regardless of who takes over next, the same old buddy-system of rewarding even mediocrity will still exist. I'm sure the next guy at the top will get his chunk of the pie just like his predecessor, while the stockholders hold out hopes of being thrown a few scraps in the form of some higher earnings (earnings that seem predestined to be first awarded to the top executives who feel their "risk" is much higher than that of the average stockholders or something) - earnings which can't flow to the bottom line so long as they are flowing into the pockets of top-level management. Prove me wrong Home Depot execs... prove me wrong!