Now you can make a Net page without really trying
Some things will be part of the history of computers. The mouse and Windows will have chapters to themselves. So will Word, Microsoft's word processor used on PCs and Macs everywhere. Word is part of Microsoft Office. With 55 million users, it is clearly a market leader.
Those using the 15-month-old Office 95 will wonder why they need the new Office 97. Microsoft's answer is that today's computer needs to breathe the Internet. Each item in Office, including a spreadsheet and personal organiser, now connects to the Web - an idea which offers educational opportunities but takes getting used to.
Making a world-beating word processor better ought to be difficult. What they've done is introduce features that used to be an effort and brought them right up front. For example, it now checks your grammar on the fly, and puts a green squiggle under cliches (it missed that one) as well as problems with plurals, pronouns or punctuation. You can change the grammar settings from formal to casual to suit your writing. As with the last Word, spelling errors are squiggled in red, but now it corrects many more errors without asking. For example, "dont", "tHERE" and "alot" are put right the second you type them, as is the missing capital letter when you start a new sentence.
English teachers might not have asked for these features, but they do want a word processor that tracks how a piece of writing develops and this it now does: you can set the machine to save every version that the work goes through and then can review each of them.
If ever you are stuck, the help is good. There's a character, the Office Assistant, to whom you can type questions. You ask "How can I make this stand out?" or "How can I fax" and it gives a useful reply.
Excel, the program that lets you handle data, has got clever, too. Now if you've a table to do maths on, you just can type, say, "amount + tax" and it works out what you mean from your headings. It even colour-codes the figures so you can see if you get what you want.
There are new graph types so, instead of bar charts, you can have cone, pyramid and cylinder charts. Or there's a bubble chart to compare three data sets at once by plotting one set against another and showing the third by the size of the bubble. Graphs are easier than before, and for that Excel is welcome in school.
The big feature is the Internet. Whether you use Excel or Word, you can save the work as Internet pages. A "publishing wizard" might find your Net connection, as it did mine, and send off the page without grief. If you are miles from the information superhighway, this at least brings it closer. You can link any Office document to any another. You can make links or references to documents on your disc or network, so if you put a link to the national curriculum in your work scheme, a click will bring it up on screen. And whenever you enter codes such as www.tes.co.uk, it becomes an Internet link on your page, to connect you to this newspaper on-line and read, say, what was said about Office 95.
There are some new concepts to get your head round, too: such as using Word or the slide-show program, PowerPoint, to look at Internet pages, or using Excel to make a spreadsheet with a table of links. If you had a form for a survey of sorts, you could use Excel to collate and store the data - the form could be either on the school network or Internet.
The new PowerPoint lets you turn a flashy slide presentation, a student's project say, into a series of Internet pages with a contents page, forward buttons and links all done. And with the new Microsoft Access, a high flyers' database program, you could "publish" your school registers, or exam results, and keep them updated. The potential here for publishing data and not having to maintain it is uncharted - so for those whose job is to make pages in the Internet programming language, it looks like a short career.
The new feature in this package is Outlook, a sort of personal organiser with unheard of capabilities all in one place. It not only lets you keep a diary, address book and lists, it also lets you edit your documents and file electronic mail. It keeps a log of things you do, like make phone calls, or send faxes. And because you are more likely to remember when you wrote something rather than what you called it, it helps you find old work by showing your entire output on a time line.
There are common features in this package that make each part of it familiar and accessible. Many things, such as menus, can also be customised by the moderately expert while real experts will be able to make this dance at the office party. Most usefully, Office co-operates well with Windows. For example, it lets you drag text from an Internet page straight into the word processor or drag a document into another to link them.
As you'd expect, Microsoft's stuff works well with Microsoft's stuff. In time, everything on a computer will happen in one handy place. It's then that the name Microsoft will be tattooed on every screen, every history book and even on your head.
Here's a little something for most users, though those who type up the odd page will not need anything this good. Those who upgrade like lemmings will, of course, buy the extra memory they need and dive in. Others, especially those in office work, who are seriously using the Internet, will get their money's worth. All but the youngest will appreciate how much easier things are getting and not bother with the history books.