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What's new in the box?

You've all read the hype, but now Roger Frost cuts to the chase and evaluates the true worth of Office 2000

To say that Office 2000, Microsoft's all-purpose software, does maths, prints on paper and makes slide shows on the screen, is the shortest of shorthand. Office 2000, which first appeared in the summer, is a bumper bundle with Word, Excel, and other programs depending on the pack you buy. Here is software that lets you make Web pages, put them on a school intranet and use them in ways that visionaries have often talked about but few had a clue how to do. Now you can run a discussion area on the school website or even broadcast the school play from it.

If you would rather not be doing any of that, there is still enough to be doing. Word, for example, looks and feels as familiar as any typist would want it to be. When they need to piece together a report, a clipboard now lets them "copy" not one but a dozen items in succession.

With tables you can adjust the sizes of columns and rows, dragging their borders to suit the page or hold down the ALT key to fit them to an exact size. Or you can forget fiddling with column sizes altogether as Word will widen the columns to fit the text as you type. Tables now really come into their own for laying out a page as you can drag them to another part of the page and have the text run around their borders. Usefully you can drag a table's corner and it will resize and yet keep its columns in proportion.

Word's ability to save work as Web pages is also much enhanced. You can now create an elaborate page layout in Word and it still looks good when you save it as a Web page. The reason is that Word can save and load in a "high fidelity" Web page file format. In fact this Web page format is key to the whole business of Office as both Excel and Power-Point can save work in this universal format. To maintain full compatibility, Office 2000's normal file formats are just as readable with Office 97.

Word's Internet features let you make a small website, make pages with framed menus, and add pop-up screen tips to guide a pupil through a worksheet. The Excel program gets really clever as you can add "nteractivity" when you save a spreadsheet.

With PowerPoint you won't need to fiddle with text sizes as a slick new feature automatically resizes words to fit the slide. The presentation program also offers a new three-pane view of a slide show that lets them edit text, notes and graphics all in the one screen. This can be published as an impressive set of Web pages, just with a single button. Those that are ready for it can add video and synchronised commentary to their slides, or broadcast assemblies and prize days on the Web.

It soon becomes clear that despite rudimentary enhancements, Office really takes flight when you are on an intranet. Whereas previous editions of Word offered ways to add annotations and comments to documents, there's now a way to take that collaboration on to the Web. In future, when others view your work in a Web browser, it sports a "discuss" button allowing others to comment.

If you've ever found that your computer couldn't read a certain type of file, Office 2000 now helps you bypass this. It can request the CD-Rom so that it can install it. Those who manage networks might offer everyone a typical set of features, and leave Office to install new ones as people need them. It should save on disk space and save on their being hassled too. Time will tell.

Office for the Macintosh is on a different development schedule to the PC, so with PC and Mac editions leapfrogging each other over the years, Apple users are at least spared the decision to upgrade or not. Office nevertheless offers something for all, but the typist. Those running it across networks and intranets can make some educational visions become real and put them to the test. Make no mistake, Office 2000 is interesting, and for those with time to experiment a way to go. It's down to network politics as to whether such power is ever offered to the people.

You can get up to speed with In and Out of the Classroom with Office 2000 a free downloadable guide available from the US Microsoft Education 2000 StandardPrice: pound;148 - one licenceOffice 2000 ProfessionalPrice: pound;222 - one licenceTel: 0870 607 0800

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