It has been 24 years since Microsoft first released Word, and four years since the program’s last major upgrade. How much more can Microsoft do to tweak its venerable word processor? Surprisingly, Word gets several major enhancements in Office 2008, the first version of Microsoft’s productivity suite to run natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs. Those changes include a new document format, a simplified toolbar, and a new toolbox that combines palettes for managing formatting, clip art, iPhoto images, research, and bibliographies. But the biggest improvement is the addition of a new view option called Publishing Layout.
In this new view, arranging text and graphics on the page is far simpler than it was in previous versions of Word. Like Apple, Microsoft has apparently concluded that people use word processing programs for far more than just creating text-based documents. Creating complex, graphics-rich documents requires tools historically found in powerful page layout programs such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. Like Apple’s Pages, Microsoft Word now allows you to select a distinct editing environment specifically for creating layout-intensive documents. That environment is Publishing Layout.
The biggest downside in what would otherwise be an excellent upgrade: the elimination of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). In its place, Word 2008 offers limited support for AppleScript and Automator. Those replacements don’t offer the recording or other features that made it pretty simple to automate and customize Word 2004. If you’re accustomed to Word 2004’s automation features, you’re going to be disappointed in Word 2008.
Like the other Office 2008 apps, Word has a new user interface that makes it easier to manage preferences, consolidates most of Word’s formatting tools, and puts key document elements—including cover pages, headers, footers, and bibliographies—a single click away.
The first and most obvious interface change is the new toolbar. It sits at the top of your document window, rather than being tied to the menu bar. In previous versions, Word’s toolbars could fill up most of the top of your screen. They were too easy to accidentally rearrange and contained way more buttons than most people used. Word 2008’s simpler toolbar includes all of what you need to effectively open, create, and save documents, undo and redo changes, and add tables and columns. If there’s a button you don’t want or one that you think is missing, it’s easy to change the toolbar. Unfortunately, Word still doesn’t use the typical Mac toolbar customization sheet; Microsoft says those sheets couldn’t manage all the options Microsoft wanted to offer.
Just below Word’s toolbar is the Elements Gallery, a set of five new buttons from which you can quickly add document elements, tables, charts, SmartArt graphics, and WordArt to documents. The Document Elements button, for example, lets you quickly add or modify cover pages, headers and footers, or a table of contents. Some users may find it annoying that they can’t remove this Gallery; I think more will be grateful for its presence.
Word 2008’s new Toolbox combines a bunch of different palettes in one floating tool. From it, you can quickly access formatting options, insertable symbols, clip art, your iPhoto library, reference tools, and Office’s Scrapbook and Project Center. In previous versions, those tools were scattered among menus, toolbars, and floating palettes; they’re now all in one place.
Aside from the formatting tools, I particularly liked the Toolbox’s Citations panel, which allows you to quickly and simply create a database of reference works. By adding articles, Web sites, books, and other materials to this database, you can easily add them to your document. Word will then automatically create a bibliography or citation page (in APA, Chicago, MLA, or Turabian format). Previous editions of Word had limited versions of this feature, but it was not this obvious or easy to use.
Still, the Toolbox lacks the simplicity of Pages’ floating palettes. For example, depending on what was selected in my document and which disclosure triangles were opened, the Formatting palette sometimes outgrew my screen—even when I was working on a 20-inch iMac. Closing those disclosure triangles took care of this problem, but it would be nice if Word worked more like Pages, which uses a tabbed format for document options and which allows you to open more than one floating palette at a time. I was also frustrated by the fact that my scroll wheel didn’t work on scrollbars in the formatting palette but did work on other scrollbars in the Toolbox.
One other nice interface change: Word 2008’s new Preferences panel is much better organized and more Mac-like than Word 2004’s.
It’s always been a bit frustrating using Word to create brochures, postcards, posters, or other types of documents that require arranging different elements on the page. Previous versions simply haven’t been designed to perform that kind of page layout magic. Word 2008’s new Publishing Layout view changes that dramatically.
Publishing Layout offers a bunch of tools for placing and manipulating text and graphics on the page. Like Pages, Word 2008 allows you to create template documents with image and text placeholders; you can drag and drop images and text into those placeholders, making it easy to turn those templates into new, fresh documents. You can also link text boxes so text overflows from one to another.
The image-editing tools in Publishing Layout aren’t as good as those in Pages. While it is possible to add masks and transparency and make minor adjustments to images in your document, the program is nowhere near as adept at it as Pages. Another thing I noticed: the longer I worked in Publishing Layout mode, the slower Word seemed to get when manipulating images or moving text boxes around on the page.
Word 2008 adopts the new, XML-based .docx format for documents. That format makes Word 2008 compatible with the latest version of Word for Windows. Unfortunately, those documents can’t be opened in older versions of Word without the downloadable .docx converter from Microsoft. To bypass this problem, Word 2008 does allow you to save documents in the older .doc format using a Compatibility Mode.
More significantly, Office 2008 marks the demise of Visual Basic for Applications. In its stead, Word includes an AppleScript library. Unfortunately, according to Microsoft, Word’s AppleScript library isn’t nearly as complete as the VBA library was. In addition, while there are 30 Automator actions for Word, they aren’t that useful. Neither AppleScript nor Automator will let you record a string of events in Word and save them as a reusable script.
Word does a good job of merging data from a variety of sources, including text files, Office’s own address book, and FileMaker Pro. But, unlike Pages, Word can’t merge data from Apple’s Address Book app. I’d prefer a program that can merge data from any source. But, given the choice, I’d take Word’s missing Address Book merge to Pages’ missing everything else.
Should I stay?
The question for most Mac users isn’t “Should I buy Word 2008?” It’s “Should I upgrade?”
As a word processor, Word 2008 is no better or worse than Word 2004. You’ll be able to create and format documents the way you want to, print them, and get them out the door. But the new user interface is cleaner; thanks to some great design decisions at Microsoft, there’s virtually no learning curve. Yes, it’s a pain that you can’t hide the Elements Gallery, but it never got in my way and it definitely put some previously hard-to-find features at my fingertips.
Word’s enhanced publishing tools are a huge plus; Windows users have had Publisher for eons and the addition of Publishing Layout levels the playing field for Mac users. That said, you can get better page layout tools for less money (without losing Office file compatibility) from iWork’s Pages.
The loss of VBA is a travesty; if you’re using Word in a mixed business environment with both Macs and Windows machines and you rely on a lot of macros, it’s a deal breaker. The Automator scripts that come with Word 2008 are not particularly valuable as automation tools, and there’s no easy way to automate with AppleScript. If you need automation, Word 2008 is not for you.
Macworld’s buying advice
As a word processor, little has changed in Word 2008. The elimination of VBA and weak support for AppleScript and Automator make the program far less versatile and valuable for users who really need automation. But the program’s streamlined interface and the addition of the new Publishing Layout view make it a compelling choice, especially if you want to stretch Word beyond its current capabilities.
[Jeffery Battersby is a network manager who lives in upstate New York. You can read his blog at jeffbattersby.com.]