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Book Reviews

Microsoft Office 2000 Secrets

by Steve Cummings

SAMS Teach Yourself Microsoft Office 2000 in 10 Minutes

by Laura Acklen

Office 2000: The Complete Reference

by Stephen L. Nelson

Teach Yourself Microsoft Office 2000 Visually

by MaranGraphics staff

Microsoft Office 2000 Step by Step

by Catapult Inc.

Given the eruption of hype that usually accompanies Microsoft launches, the arrival of Office 2000 in June was a decidedly low-key event. There were no Rolling Stones tie-ins, no TV commercials, no magazine ad blitzes, and precious few Bill Gates photo ops.

This hasn’t been a good year for the company’s PR department, and that may explain better than anything this year’s quiet. The ongoing antitrust battle with the U.S. Justice Department, once widely regarded as a no-brainer for Microsoft lawyers, appears to have swung heavily against the Redmond, Washington, company, and Silicon Valley pundits are now seriously considering the possibility that a court order could break the company up, AT&T-style, sometime in the near future.

That said, Microsoft’s bottom line is healthier than ever, and the release of a new version of Office means a new flood of dollars for both Microsoft itself and the hundreds of companies – hardware manufacturers, tech-support firms and, of course, publishers – that rely on Gates & Co. for a good chunk of their own cash flow.

“Office 2000 is probably the biggest event of the year for us,” says Frank Tomaino, marketing manager for Prentice Hall Canada. “We’re anticipating a much bigger release than we’ve seen for some time.”

It’s a widespread sentiment.

“We’re releasing more than 50 books to coincide with Office 2000,” says John Kilcullen, Chairman and CEO of IDG Books Worldwide. “It’s an enormous opportunity for us, and a chance to revise all our proven bestsellers. More than half our business revolves around Microsoft products, and Office represents well over half of our titles for this season.”

For the uninitiated, Office is the most popular suite of its kind: a collection of productivity applications made up of Word (word processing), Excel (spreadsheet), Outlook (calendar and e-mail), and Powerpoint (presentations), plus, depending on the specific bundle, Access (database), Publisher (page layout), FrontPage (web site design), and PhotoDraw (image editing).

For years, Microsoft has promoted Office as a tightly integrated toolset: a package that allows users to analyze data, plan meetings, write letters, send memos, and so on without all the hassle that would normally go along with learning to use five programs at once. With Office, it’s supposed to be easy to drop spreadsheet tables into word-processor documents, and it’s supposed to be easy to turn a database of names into neatly formatted mailing labels.

The reality has always been a little less glorious. Since at least the mid-1990s, all of Office’s component applications have shared a more-or-less consistent look and feel, but the business of putting a pie chart into an annual report is still intimidating as hell, even for the supremely techno-literate. An example: I’ve worked in high-tech industries for nearly five years and I’ve never once met a co-worker who could fold spreadsheet data into a Word document without needing four or five tries.

Now, this is hardly bad news for computer-book publishers and retailers; every frustrated Office user is a potential instructional-book buyer. The key, of course, is in guessing where users are most likely to find themselves stuck, and in getting them over the humps with the fewest tears. Or, failing that, in capitalizing to the basest, most primal fears of office workers everywhere. It’s no accident, after all, that one of the most successful instructional book series of the late 20th century refers to its readers as “dummies.”

The new version of Office is designed to allow “seamless collaboration” over the Web, both on intranets and the global Internet. In plain language, this means that you can save Office documents as web pages, and that anyone with a browser should be able to read and work with them.

Now, this isn’t all that new; the Internet was also the keystone of the Office 97 marketing effort, and that version also promised Internet “integration” and allowed users to save their documents as web pages.

When Office 97 hit store shelves, the tech press drooled over Microsoft’s forward thinking, Gates-haters griped that it was one more example of the company’s relentless drive to grab control of all things digital, and the average user wondered what any of it had to do with the business of writing memos and updating spreadsheets.

To be fair, Office 2000’s Internet features are more sophisticated than 97’s, and the idea that cumbersome Office documents might survive a trip through a web server has a lot of market appeal, at least among geeks. But if history is any lesson, the average user will be too busy worming through the day-to-day drudgery of writing, calculating, e-mailing, and presenting to pay much attention to many of the suite’s new features.

Most computer book publishers understand this, so there are few surprises in the new crop of Office 2000 books. All of the usual suspects – Dummies, Idiots, Special Edition Using, Teach Yourself in 21 Days – are back in full force, and many lines have been expanded to include brief quick-start guides and comprehensive reference volumes, in addition to the traditional get-the-damned-thing-working instruction books.

Here are a few to watch for:

SAMS Teach Yourself Microsoft Office 2000 in 10 Minutes
This thin volume can’t really keep the promise its title makes, but it is a well organized, clearly written guide to the most common Office tasks. Each of the suite’s applications gets its own three- or four-chapter section, a quick-paced tour that starts with simple tasks and concludes with a look at more powerful features.

Teach Yourself in 10 Minutes isn’t a book for computer novices; it assumes that readers will be able to pick up new concepts quickly and doesn’t waste time or paper on hand-holding or lengthy explanations. But as an elbow book – the kind of thing that’s good to have at the ready, should you need to learn a new task quickly – it’s very good.

Microsoft Office 2000 Secrets
“Our relationship with Microsoft,” IDG chairman John Kilcullen explains, “is a very yin-and-yang thing. On the one hand, we’re reliant on them to give us access to beta versions of their software, so that we can have a book out in time for the launch. On the other hand, we have the ability – the duty, even – to expose bugs and design flaws. Our reputation depends on honest, thorough coverage.”

Well, Secrets is nothing if not thorough. Packed with information about some of Office’s least-used, most-powerful features, it’s aimed squarely at the computer-geek set. It covers macros, advanced document management, the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) development environment (essentially, a programming suite that allows advanced users to write complex applications using Office’s functionality as a base), plus hundreds of little-known tricks and shortcuts. What’s more, it never shies away from a chance to point out flaws in the suite itself.

Secrets is certainly not for everyone – it doesn’t even bother touching on the nuts and bolts of daily letter-writing and spreadsheet analysis – but it’s an ideal reference for people who are already very comfortable with Office.

Office 2000: The Complete Reference
Like Teach Yourself in 10 Minutes, Complete Reference is something of a misnomer: this is not an all-in-one book. It only barely veers into the nerd territory covered by Secrets, and it refers users who want to learn about VBA to other books. Still, for most Office users, this one contains all the information they’re ever likely to need.

Complete Reference isn’t a tutorial book; it contains no lessons, and reading it cover to cover would be both overwhelming and horribly dull. But it’s well indexed and thorough, and it contains answers to all but the most advanced Office questions.

Teach Yourself Microsoft Office 2000 Visually
Teach Yourself Visually is aimed directly at newbies, and it does a terrific job of guiding users through the uncomfortable business of starting with Office. Produced by Mississauga, Ontario-based MaranGraphics, Visually is at heart a picture book: every page features a full-colour illustration that explains a simple Office concept, and screenshots at the bottom show how to accomplish the related task.

A lot of books claim to make it easy for beginners to learn to use software, but many of them confuse cartoons and puns with actual instruction. Visually doesn’t make that mistake; it’s one of the best-designed, easiest-to-use computer books I’ve ever seen.

Microsoft Office 2000 Step by Step
Step by Step is a traditional (read: non-visual) tutorial book aimed at a slightly more advanced audience. It assumes readers have a basic level of computer literacy, and that they understand, at least vaguely, what word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and so on are all about.

It begins with an introduction to Word, and then moves slowly into more advanced territory at a comfortable pace. The lessons are on the long side, but each step is explained carefully and thoroughly, making for satisfying, steady learning.

Office 2000 will probably be the least sexy software release of this year, and early indications are that the business world isn’t in any great rush to upgrade. But this is hugely popular software; if even a fraction of current Office users take the plunge, a lot of people are going to be looking for instructional books.