Thursday, March 27, 2003
Another Office 2003 Favorite: Shared Documents Workspaces
When you work in a small office in a small business in the middle of nowhere like I do (well, okay, it's not nowhere, but it is the midwestern U.S.), it's imperative that you stay in close contact with clients on both coasts and around the world. Just a few years ago, working collaboratively and meeting my deadlines meant getting a FedEx truck to my 120-year-old farmhouse in the middle of popcorn fields in southern Indiana...which meant I had to finish a chapter, article, or project by 6:00pm in order to have it delivered the next business day. FedEx made a lot of money (relatively speaking) off my small publishing business--projects circulated from me (the writer/developer) to the technical editor, to the designer, to the copy editor, to the compositor, and on and on, all around the country and sometimes, the globe. Add long-distance conference calls on top of that and we were racking up a lot of expense and effort in order to stay in touch with each other and get our projects done on time.
The Internet--and, specifically, email--has changed everything, thank goodness. Now I can work around the clock, finishing a chapter at 3:00am if I need to, and still have it in my editor's Inbox when she comes in tomorrow morning. (It's not fun, but sometimes it's necessary...). But until I started working on First Look Microsoft Office 2003 , I still had to do all the routing myself, first to this person, then to that one. Now because of the Shared Documents feature in Office 2003, I can easily create a Shared Document Workspace--a web site using SharePoint Team Services--to house all the files our team needs in order to get a project done. The Shared Document task pane enables me to get all kinds of information about my shared document--who my teammates are, which of them are online (I can send an instant message to them if I choose), which tasks have been completed, what version of the document we're working on, and all the important links to resources we might need while we work. The task pane brings all this information right to the Office document I'm working on--in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. It's really amazing stuff.
The Shared Document workspace actually preserves a space on the web where you create document libraries (team members can check documents in and out), schedule events, have discussions, share contacts, and more. The web site is fully customizable and the design templates make it easy for the person coordinating the site to make changes, even if he or she has little or no experience with web technologies. The idea is simple--provide a space for the team to gather all the important documents it needs, and make communication between team members instant and easy. This one feature in Office 2003 may change the way I work more than anything else has since email arrived on the scene. I love it.
Case in point: Because we were on a super-short schedule to produce First Look Microsoft Office 2003 , we thought it would be a good idea to try out the Shared Documents feature while we worked. So this book was actually produced using SharePoint Team Services and the Shared Documents Workspace; and even in beta 1, it worked like a dream. I would finish a chapter and upload it to the document library on the shared workspace. The project leader and packager both downloaded it; it was reviewed and forwarded to the copy editor. She worked her magic on the file and posted it back to the library; I downloaded it for author review and then put the changed version back on the site; finally, the compositor grabbed it, flowed it into the book pages, and we were on to the next piece. Along the way, we each received alerts when a chapter was uploaded (one of the cool new features) and could see which other team members were online (if they were using Windows Messenger) so we could ask and answer questions quickly.
This is just one application--in a publishing model--but you can use shared documents with any Office document you produce: spreadsheets, reports, presentations, and more. If you work with others to get things done, you'll find that this one feature in Office 2003 is worth the admission price and the popcorn. :) k
Another reminder: There is too much information about shared documents and SharePoint Team Services to do it justice in a single post on this blog. (I'm trying to keep these short, but I'm finding it difficult...
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
Office 2003 Favorite Features: XML
I mentioned yesterday that over the next few days I wanted to give you a bit of the scoop on what I find to be the coolest new features of Office 2003, and I'll try to contain my enthusiasm to a quick overview. But I could fill an entire book...oh, wait--I already have. :) When I first began working on First Look Microsoft Office 2003 with the then-Office 11 beta, it became quickly apparent to me that this release was no simple bug-fix; it was a Big Change. A paradigm shift. A new way of looking at Office and Office-down-the-road. I think the change that will make the biggest bang and the longest echo is the full standardized support for XML (Extensible Markup Language). Now XML support in Word, Excel, and Access enables you to save your data separately from the form in which it is displayed. At first blush, that might not seem like such a big deal, but consider: This means that the same data could be used in a report, a catalog, a web page, a letter, a booklet, an article, a spreadsheet, and on and on. No retyping, fewer opportunities for error, smarter use of data, and easy exchange across platforms and among applications (Office and non-Office aps). This also gives businesses the ability to tap into data sitting unused in legacy systems and ensure that their data lives on beyond the limitations of specific application formats.
Word 2003 includes an XML Structure and tagging task pane that is easy enough to use that people who have never worked with XML before will understand how to attach a schema (the XML file that defines the structure and names the content of the XML data file) and tag content with minimal instruction; Excel 2003 provides a very cool visual mapping tool that enables you to drag-and-drop tags and work with the XML structure seamlessly. Both applications support what's called "arbitrary" or custom schemas, which enables businesses to develop their own schemas or use industry-specific schemas relevant to their particular areas. Developers will have a great opportunity to create custom schemas for specialized business applications...wish I had the time to learn to do that on a larger scale...the application possibilities would be fascinating.
Speaking of application possibilities, there are two other features are worth mentioning in relation to XML: Smart documents and InfoPath technology (okay, let's slip in the improved smart tags, too). Smart documents are specialized (here's another op for developers) documents that use XML to build intelligence into business documents, providing helps, prompts, links, and more in a customized task pane. This has huge application potential for businesses--think of the amount of additional information that could be customized directly into standard reports, data-entry screens, invoices, order forms, claims, requisitions, and more, reducing the margin for error, cutting down on help-desk calls, increasing productivity and standardizing processes. The reach and functionality of smart tags has been expanded and now developers will find them easier to create and deploy. And InfoPath technology, now also in beta, is a new application built on XML from the ground up to make smarter use of data captured in standardized business forms. Now you'll be able to use the familiar Office interface to capture all kinds of data that previously slipped through the cracks, save it as XML data, and use it in any number of applications. Pretty slick. Almost makes me wish I were a big corporation so I could really play with all these features the way I envision them. (Okay, I said almost.)
When I first began working with Office 2003, I wondered whether the main changes were more geared for large-company deployment and not so important for the little guys like me. But XML is here to stay, industry and world-wide. The support of XML in Office 2003 gives me the ability to be working in the same direction all my major large clients are headed anyway. So I figure I might as well stay out here on the cutting edge. :) Besides, the smart reuse of data--create something once and use it many times--really appeals to me as a writer. The chapter I write tomorrow can become a series of articles, marketing blurbs, brochures, presentations, and who knows? Maybe you'll see one of my quips on the side of a bus someday. The possibilities are endless. :) k
This post is obviously just a quick take of my thoughts on XML in Office 2003, but in the book I've written two chapters about XML and the related smart document, smart tag, and InfoPath technologies. If you feel so led, take a look at the book by clicking here: First Look Microsoft Office 2003.
Monday, March 24, 2003
Thanks! and News
Thanks to all of you who took the time to share your thoughts about instant messaging and other forms of communication. Your perspectives were very interesting, and we all seem to be pretty much in sync. As one writer said, "You can't stop progress," but we can--and are, and must--learn how to manage the technology so that it doesn't manage us! :)
I have a bit of news I'm excited to tell you. I've been under NDA for many months and couldn't discuss the book I was writing, but now it's available on amazon so Alex at Microsoft Press said I could spread the word. Since early December, I've been working with the Office 2003 beta and writing a "First Look" book on the newest edition of Office 2003. I've been so psyched and haven't been able to tell anybody! This was a great (and challenging) experience for me as a writer...I began working with beta 1 as soon as it was available, and many people at Microsoft on the various teams took time to answer questions, provide resources, and give me access to inside information to help us get the book done in time for the beta 2 release. So now First Look Microsoft Office 2003 is out, a book on Office 2003 that describes the new and enhanced features (love them!) and gives ideas for the ways businesses, individuals, and developers might make the most of the new offerings.
I won't clog up your Inbox now with an editorial about all the new happenings in Office 2003, but over the next few days I'll write an overview of some of my favorite new features. In the meantime, if you want to check out the book, you can find it at amazon.com by clicking here. Happy Spring! :) k
Tuesday, March 04, 2003
Do you IM?
A question: Do you currently use instant messaging as part of your work, or is it something you reserve for after hours or don't use at all? I love the instant message capability in Outlook XP--I can instantly contact an editor I know is online or trade a quick idea with a client. Companies are having some trouble knowing what to do with IM because it's not a traceable medium at this point and they can't secure IM communications the way they can email transmissions. In my city last week, a well-loved teacher at a local high school was fired because he traded an instant message with a student and it was forbidden as part of their communications policy. There was nothing inappropriate about the message--he simply broke the rule. Online this morning, I was participating in an online discussion at the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families about IM and teenagers. Some pundits are saying that instant messaging is wrecking our kids' ability to write fully developed, grammatical senses. Using "RUonline?" instead of "are you online" or LOL instead of "laughing out loud" is concerning language protectors and educators. My view is that communication is good in whatever form it takes; the more our kids learn to express themselves, the better; and fast communication is smart and can be a great asset for businesses. Let the kids communicate instantly with IM, but teach them grammar in the classroom. Why is it that we humans are so quick to judge something as good or bad instead of looking its potential and providing some reasonable guidelines for using it? Isn't there a middle-ground in there somewhere?
I'd be interested in your thoughts about IM--whether you use it and what you think of it--if you'd care to share your views with me. :) k
Saturday, March 01, 2003
Just a minute ago I was scanning a printed schedule to send to a friend. With the Scanner and Camera Wizard that's built in to Windows XP, the file weighed in at 467K. Wow, that's too big! So I tried rescanning it with Microsoft Office Document Scanning (under Microsoft Office Tools in the All Programs menu), which brought the file down to 234K. That's still a big file, but it's much better than it's larger cousin! Of course, by then I was on a mission, so I tried scanning the image directly into a Word document (choose Insert > Picture > From Scanner or Camera) and the resulting file was 178K. If you use the Word method, be sure to click the image after you scan it into the document and click the Compress Pictures tool in the Picture toolbar. That saves us the guilt of feeling bad about clogging up other peoples' inboxes. Have a good weekend! :) k
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