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Microsoft Word 12 (beta 1)

The next generation of Word drops its menu-based interface in favor of a system that hopes to read your mind, adding jazzed-up graphics and shrinking file sizes.

Microsoft Word 12 (beta 1)

• See the Word 12 (beta 1) slide show

Overview: With its first rollout of beta code, Microsoft Word 12 reveals sweeping changes in store for this core app in the ubiquitous Microsoft Office system. Redmond hopes users of Word will be able to find functions faster, change formatting more easily, share files seamlessly, and manage sensitive data better in this new release. To that end, the interface of Word is undergoing the most drastic surgery we've seen in eight years. As with Excel and PowerPoint, this word-processing tool is shifting away from the old-school menu-based layout and toward a progressive design that surfaces functions dynamically in response to the task at hand. Windows Vista's new graphics engine will make possible a host of snazzy formatting galleries, but even Windows XP users will benefit from the changes. Thanks to improved ZIP file compression, the new default XML-based file format, dubbed DOCX, aims to shrink files to half the size of those in Word 2003 and also separate text from layout to make design changes a snap. Check out our slide show of Word 12 (beta 1) for a peek at its new face and features.

Upside: Word 12 documents rely on a thick ribbon of functions clustered at the top of each window, placing the major features within reach without demanding so many mouse clicks. The ribbon's main tabs include File, Write, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, Developer, and Picture Tools. The new Write tab includes edit, font choice, paragraph alignment, proofing tools, and so on. We applaud the live previews of fonts and other formatting changes, as well as the business-friendly ability to convert text bullet points and numbered lists into flowcharts and other diagrams. You can save info graphics to the galleries for later use and apply multiple changes across the Office 12 suite--handy, say, if your company just updated its logo. Word also gets skills to crop graphics, alter brightness, and even convert pictures into sepia tones--sparing you from opening another app for quick picture edits. And we like Microsoft's Document Inspector, which helps manage the hidden metadata within Word files; hopefully, this will spare users the embarrassment of sending unwanted details to outside parties. Work produced within Word 12 will be backwards compatible with version 2000 and can easily be converted to PDF and CPS formats.

Downside: There will be a significant learning curve involved, and longtime Word users will have to adjust to the new interface. Unlike the out-of-view function menus of the past, Word 12's ribbon of features hogs screen real estate and RAM. You can't hide from this thick banner; instead, its constant shifting of available tools automatically responds to your work and creates a potential visual distraction. And while the ribbon places familiar functions within easy reach, we found the adjustment initially disconcerting. For example, to add a text box, we wondered whether to click the Insert tab, Page Layout, or Picture Tools. Click an embedded image within a document, and Word 12 displays the Picture Tools options and grays out unrelated functions. Such attempts at anticipating your needs could frustrate newbies fast, especially for those who mostly want to type text and ignore the omnipresent tool galleries. And while the Document Inspector is a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether the metadata defaults protect the privacy of less savvy users.

Outlook: Now that the curtain is up on the surface changes to Microsoft Word 12, we're curious to see how beta testers respond. Will the app make word processing more efficient, or will the learning curve frustrate users during the first few weeks of adjustment? Microsoft's second beta release of Office 12 (expected next spring) will concentrate on Word's plans to better serve enterprises and streamline work group workflow. Check out our slide show of Word 12 (beta 1) for a host of pictures.

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