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Supporting Office 2007: top tips for compatibility and how to make the most of the Ribbon and Quick Access Toolbar

It was a shock when Microsoft unveiled Office 2007 at its Professional Developers Conference in 2005. The reason was the new ribbon user interface (officially called the Office Fluent User Interface), not supplementing but replacing the old drop-down menus. According to Microsoft, the new UI was the outcome of years of research, as described in detail by Group Program Manager Jensen Harris on his blog. Nevertheless, response to the ribbon has been mixed: some users love it, some never get used to it, and pretty much everyone experiences a period of frustration during which familiar features are hard to find.


As if that were not enough, Office 2007 introduced another major change, a new set of file formats based on XML in place of the old binary formats. These are nearly-but-not-quite the formats standardised by ISO despite bitter opposition from IBM and others; the actual ISO standards include revisions that might not be implemented until the next version of Office. Initially called Office Open XML (OOXML), the formats are now entitled Open XML (OXML). Most users care little about the standards wars, but what they do notice is when documents saved in the default format cannot always be opened by their recipients when emailed. Support for the new formats is much better now than on first release, but it remains a tricky issue.

Open XML does bring benefits. Files are smaller, thanks to ZIP compression, and Microsoft claims improved data recovery from corrupt documents. Documents with macros in are clearly marked and have their own separate file extensions (.DOCXM rather than .DOCX, for example), so macro viruses are much easier to detect and block. Bigger benefits come if you need to generate documents programmatically, since you can create XML without having to automate the Office applications, or if you want to exploit the power of XML for data mining or by including custom XML content.

Ribbon advantages
Whether the Ribbon is better or worse than the old Office menu structure is a matter for debate, but it is worth learning its rationale, if only to explain the change to users. Here are some of the main advantages.

First, according to Harris the ribbon is intended to be “the one and only place to look for functionality in the product”. That’s not quite true, since some less-used commands are not on the ribbon, or take several clicks to find, but nevertheless most of what Office can do is there on view, rather than nested deep in a menu structure.

Second, the ribbon exposes more of the features of Office in a place where they are likely to be noticed. Microsoft says most Office feature requests are for things that are already in the product. The ribbon improves discoverability.

Third, the fixed nature of the ribbon means that all Office 2007 installs normally have the same commands in the same place. It is possible to customize the ribbon, but only programmatically.

Fourth, the ribbon is context-sensitive. For example, there is a Drawing Tools ribbon in Word, but it only appears if a drawing object is selected. This has advantages over floating or docked toolbars that a user might inadvertently close — or leave open and not be able to get rid of.

Finally, the ribbon has a more sophisticated user interface than most toolbars. It can contain a variety of control types and sizes, which Microsoft has carefully grouped and arranged in order to present the most important options in the largest size. You will also notice that most controls have a text label, in contrast to toolbars which often have only an icon and tooltip. This makes it easier to see at a glance what the icons do.

Some users complain that the ribbon takes up too much space, especially on laptops with small screens. The solution is Ctrl-F1 which toggles the ribbon on and off (or double-clicking on any of the ribbon ‘tabs’ like Home which does the same thing). When the ribbon is hidden, you can still see the tab headings and click on them to display the controls; in fact, it behaves a bit like the drop-down menus it replaces.

Training users to use Office 2007
Although Office 2007 looks very different, the underlying features are not so different. Almost every feature of Office 2003 remains in Office 2007 (and there are new tools for graphics and diagrams). The key issue for users is finding the right command.

Some users take a while to discover the office button, perhaps because it has no label. Show them that clicking this button (or choosing Alt-F) displays the old File menu, along with access to the application Options dialog.

Next, explain that that the old keyboard shortcuts still work. This feels odd, because the menu options to which they are shortcuts are not there, but it is handy if your fingers still know what to type.

The unobtrusive Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) is critically important, because it is the only easy way to customize the ribbon. By default it appears above the ribbon, but can be moved below. The idea is that you move the most frequently used commands to the QAT and every ribbon control has a right-click option to ‘Add to Quick Access Toolbar’.

The interactive guides for Office 2007 replicate the menu structure of Office 2003
-- click image to enlarge --

You can use the QAT to expose any Office command. For example, say you could not find the old Apply Styles command in Word. Use the following steps:

1. Click the Office button, choose Word Options
2. Choose Customize
3. Select ‘All Commands’ in the Choose commands from dropdown
4. Find Apply Style... in the alphabetical list, and click Add
5. Click OK to close the dialog

The same dialog is also accessible from
Customize Quick Access Toolbar > More Commands.

Transition tools
There are a number of transition tools for Office 2007. Install the Search Commands add-in from Microsoft’s Office Labs site to add a search tab to the ribbon. When the user makes a search, the commands that are found can be used immediately. They also have tooltip help showing the normal location of the command, and describing what it does.

There are interactive command references which you can access online or download. These are Flash movies that replicate the Office 2003 user interface. When you select a command, a tooltip tells you where to find it in Office 2007.

The Community Clips Office Labs project acts as a kind of Office YouTube. Search for a topic, and if you are lucky there will be a step-by-step screencast showing how to use the feature. But you can also download and install the Community Clips tool and make your own training videos. This add-in gives you a Community Clips ribbon tab; click Start Recording, perform the actions you want to demonstrate, then click Stop Recording. You can save the screencast locally to use for customer training or upload it to the site (think of it as marketing your services). For best results, set the screen size to no more than 1024x768, or choose to record a single application or region rather than the whole screen (set those options using the Community Clips system tray application). Community Clips may be clunky compared to professional tools like TechSmith’s Camtasia, but it is free and integrates with Office.

How to cope with Open XML
Compatibility problems with the OXML file formats are still common, usually because not everyone has Office 2007 within the organization, or sometimes because of document interchange with third parties. There are several ways to mitigate this.

 

First, consider setting the default save formats to the old binary standards. This is a setting under Options > Save for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, accessed by clicking the Office button. You can have these settings made the default through Group Policy, via administrative templates (see R click for the details on TechNet).

The ramifications of this change are small, unless users have used the new SmartArt tools or you are making specific use of OXML for searching or analysing stored documents. There are a couple of other casualties, including the Word equation editor and the much larger sheet size in Excel 2007 (1,048,576 rows by 16,384), versus earlier versions (65,536 rows by 256). These features are not supported by the binary formats. Still, there is nothing to stop a user using Save As to get the new format when required for a specific reason.

 

Second, you can educate users to save locally in the new formats but export to a more universally understood format, such as the Office 2003 document types, when sending documents outside the company or posting them on the Web.

 

Third, make sure users know about the compatibility pack, and install this for all users without Office 2007. Users with Office XP or Office 2003 will then be able to open and save OXML. Users with Windows 2000 SP4 or higher can covert OXML to binary formats directly from Windows Explorer. Mac users with OS 10.4.9 or higher can install the Open XML File Format Converter for Mac 1.0.

 

Another option for users on Windows, Mac and Linux is OpenOffice.org 3.0, which can open but not save OXML documents. Once open, they can be exported to other formats.

 

If all else fails, there is also an online option. Zamzar (www.zamzar.com) can convert OXML files to a variety of formats, and is free for limited use, or offers a paid premium service.


Backing up the Quick Access Toolbar

Since the QAT is vital for making the most efficient use of Office 2007, it is important to back up user settings. These are stored in the user profile at Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Office, or on Vista at AppData\Local\Microsoft\Office, and they are files with a .QAT extension.

 

Unfortunately, files under Local Setting are by default not part of a user’s roaming profile. They may get cached, but equally that cache may get deleted. This issue also affects Terminal Server users. You can solve it by adding a line to a logoff script to copy the .QAT files to another location, such as a folder under Application Data, and another one on logon to copy them back. If you want to pre-populate the QAT, you can add commands in your own installation of Office, copy the .QAT file and use a script to distribute it.


Automating documents

Microsoft Office was one of the earliest applications to support COM automation. This remains an important feature. You can write code in Visual Basic, or any language that supports COM, that opens Office applications and creates, modifies and saves documents. This can greatly improve productivity in scenarios where standard documents and reports are needed. While powerful, several factors make Office automation unsatisfactory in some circumstances. First, it is a heavyweight solution, since the Office applications are particularly large and complex. Second, it is not always robust, particularly where third-party add-ins are installed in Office. A typical problem is that application instances do not close properly. Third, Office automation is not supported on a Web server.

 

Microsoft came up with a specific product for working with Excel server-side. Called Excel Services, this is part of SharePoint and includes an Excel-compatible calculation engine, a Web part for spreadsheet display, and Excel Web Services for programmatic control. Still, even Excel Services is a big dependency. The advantage of the new XML-based document formats is that any application can parse, modify and create Office documents without any dependency on Office itself.

 

Working with Office XML is not quite as easy as just modifying or creating an XML document. Open XML documents are composed of several separate XML files, arranged in a pre-defined folder structure, called the Open Packaging Convention (OPC), and ZIP-compressed to a single file. Note that any Open XML document can be renamed with a .ZIP extension and inspected with standard ZIP archive tools, so a user can extract all the images in a document or presentation very easily.

 

The easiest way to work programmatically with Open XML documents is a .NET library and tools called the Open XML SDK. Version 1.0 wraps the OPC, but leaves the programmer to figure out the XML, assisted by the voluminous Open XML specification. Version 2.0, currently in preview, has a strongly-typed document object model that greatly simplifies the code. There are also tools for inspecting a document as XML, comparing documents, and navigating the specification.



Extending Office 2007

There are several ways to extend Office 2007 applications. Two of the most common are macros written in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), and COM add-ins written in any language that can compile a COM DLL. Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) is a set of tools that enable developers to extend Office by writing .NET code in Visual Studio. VSTO is now Microsoft’s recommendation for extending Office; it is more manageable than macros in documents, benefits from just-in-time compilation, and gives access to all the features of the .NET Framework as well as tight integration with Office. Nevertheless, VBA macros still have their place. VBA is more document-centric, whereas VSTO is more application-centric. Another factor is that Office is still built using COM technology, which fits naturally with VBA, whereas VSTO interacts with Office through COM interop. It is sometimes necessary to use both.

 

Macros created for earlier versions of Office generally run in Office 2007, but the user interface may be compromised. Any add-on menus or toolbars appear on the Add-Ins tab in the Office ribbon. You can update these add-ons by customizing the ribbon. In fact, the ribbon has several advantages for Office developers, compared to older versions of Office, since it presents a richer design surface and better hooks for responding to changes in document state.

 

In outline, customizing the Office ribbon involves writing XML to define the changes. You can either add controls to built-in ribbon tabs, or create new ones. This XML is then embedded in an OXML template. When the template loads, the changes are applied to the ribbon. There are tools to assist with this, from the basic Custom UI Editor to the visual Ribbon Designer in the latest VSTO. A great place to start is the Office Fluent User Interface Developer Portal. More general resources for Office development can be found in the Office Developer How-to Center.



Office 2007 documents on mobile devices

Users with smartphones are used to reading email attachments in Office formats and viewers for the familiar .DOC and .XLS formats are common on mobile devices. What are the options for the new OXML document types?

 

Microsoft Office Mobile 6.1 is the first to support the Office 2007 formats, and it’s included on some new devices. It runs on the following platforms:
- Windows Mobile 5 Pocket PC
- Pocket PC Phone Edition
- Windows Mobile 6.
It’s also a free upgrade for existing Office Mobile users, or costs around ?25.95 including VAT, from Handango (www.handango.co.uk).

 

Documents to Go supports both viewing and creating documents in a variety of formats including Office 2007. It runs on the following platforms:
- Blackberry Device Software 4.5 or higher
- Palm OS 5.0
- Symbian Series 80
- Symbian UIQ 3.0 or higher
- Windows Mobile 5.0 or higher
Documents to Go costs ?33.00 including VAT for the premium edition.

 

Quickoffice 5.0 supports .DOCX and .XLSX but not yet .PPTX. Earlier releases of Quickoffice run on a wider range of devices, but do not yet support Office 2007. It runs on the following platforms:
- Symbian S60 devices, such as the Nokia N95
- Samsung i560,
Quickoffice 5.0 costs $70.00 (around ?45.00). In most cases, bulk licences can be bought at lower cost. (www.quickoffice.com)

 

Apple’s iPhone Mail application supports attachments in .DOCX, .PPTX and .XLSX as well as binary Office formats. You can view attachments in portrait or landscape, and zoom and scroll.

 

Key Resources
Jensen Harris explains the reason for the Ribbon UI:

http://blogs.msdn.com/jensenh/archive/2006/11/10/the-office-2007-ui-bible.aspx

Search Commands add-in:
www.officelabs.com/projects/searchcommands

Interactive Guides:
http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/HA102295841033.aspx

Community Clips:
http://communityclips.officelabs.com

Using Group Policy to set document defaults:
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc178949.aspx


 
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