With Microsoft's Office tools for Mac due a major upgrade next month, Digit takes a look at what Mac users can expect from Office 2004.

Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) is preparing Office 2004 for Mac for a May release, and Mac users can preorder Office 2004 from several online retailers already. Analysts feel that the contribution that Office makes to the Macintosh platform cannot be underestimated in Apple's push for more customers.

Early indications

Office 2004 promises many new additions, ranging from a command centre for related correspondence, calendars, and files, to an audio recorder that gives your typing fingers a rest. Here's a lowdown on some of the new features.

Project Center

The biggest addition in Office 2004 - an organizational tool called Project Center - resides in Entourage. But there's more to Project Center than email. It reaches across Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, providing a single place from which to jump to documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and email messages scattered across your hard drive. Project Center is at the heart of Microsoft's efforts to make organizing and managing information with Office easier. It extends existing features, combining Entourage's PIM capabilities - contact information, calendars, and to-do lists - with direct access to important files. It links related items, so you can see emails about a specific project alongside a calendar listing meetings, appointments, tasks, and due dates for that project. You can set up automatic rules that link projects to new email messages as they hit your inbox, and you can share projects with other Entourage 2004 users.

Just a click away

Even when you're working in Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, Project Center is within reach. A Project Toolbox appears in the other Office applications (you access it via the View menu or by clicking on an icon in the toolbar). It features nearly all the information you get from Project Center's Overview tab - a daily schedule, a task list, a notes window, and a list of new and recent email. A button at the bottom of the toolbar lets you jump directly to Project Center.

The big picture

Project Center's Overview tab gives you the status of many aspects of a project. A seven-day calendar displays related appointments and meetings for any week. Two columns at the bottom of the screen offer quick, customizable access to everything from email to past-due tasks.

The Project Center button is where the Custom Views button used to be. But Custom Views hasn't disappeared altogether; it's part of the preview pane on the left side of the Entourage window. Watch Folders, represented by icons in the lower right corner of Project Center, let you keep an eye on important email and documents. The Entourage Watch Folder - its icon sports the Entourage logo - is a folder in Entourage's Mail view that is created with each project you start. Filing an email message in your Entourage Watch Folder connects it to a specific project. The Project Watch Folder bears a Finder logo and links to a folder on your hard drive where you store all project-related files. These files also appear in Project Center's Files view. When you start a project, you can either automatically create a Watch Folder or select an existing one anywhere on your hard drive.

Notebook layout view

Most of us dread meetings - especially meetings in which we have to take notes. It's not that we're lazy. It's just that we almost always neglect to write down something important, and we need a cryptologist to decipher our own scrawls.

Word 2004 aims to alleviate "meeting-phobia" with its new Notebook Layout view. Essentially a beefed-up Outline view, Notebook Layout view turns your laptop into a note-taking machine by letting you embed an audio stream of a meeting or lecture in an open Word document. As you type, Word links your notes to what is being recorded at that time. Later, when you forget whether you're supposed to call Bill or bill Carl, you can click on the audio icon next to the Bill entry and jump directly to that part of the meeting.

The Audio Notes toolbar, accessible only in Word's Notebook Layout view, contains controls for embedding audio in your document. You can start, stop, and pause the recording, adjust the input volume, and play back audio. From this toolbar, you can monitor a file's size. According to Microsoft, a 60-minute recording in MPEG-4 format adds roughly 6MB to a Word document. You can also save audio in AIFF or WAV. You can export recorded audio as a separate file or delete it completely to get a slimmed-down version of the document.

The Section Tabs feature lets you divide notes into related topics. For instance, you could keep a whole project's worth of work together, and insert tab at the beginning of each meeting. Tabs appear only in the Notebook Layout view. When you switch back to the Normal view, tabbed sections appear sequentially, divided by section breaks.

Expanded formatting

In the Notebook Layout view, you'll notice a few new headings under the traditional Formatting palette - Note Flags for marking follow-up text, settings for the document's notebook rules, and sorting options for outline items. You'll also find many of the organizational commands from the old Outlining toolbar.

To make the Notebook Layout view truly useful, you need to get used to the way outlines organize text hierarchically. The Formatting palette's Note Levels section offers easy access to important outlining functions: promoting and demoting outline topics, creating numbered or bulleted lists, and more. You can still use the traditional keyboard commands for these tasks. As you reorganize items, any associated audio moves with them.

Know your rights

In the Windows version of Office 2003, Microsoft introduced Information Rights Management (IRM). The company touted IRM as a way to restrict printing, forwarding, and copying of email messages and Office documents. Mac users couldn't create or access IRM-protected files, and that's still the case. And some people who run Office on Windows are out of the loop, too. To create the secure files, Windows users must have either the Professional or the Professional Enterprise version of the 2003 suite. To view IRM-protected files, Windows users must have Office 2003 or a Microsoft-supplied viewer.

Scrapbook

In OS 9, the Scrapbook utility functioned as a permanent clipboard - you could add almost any item to the Scrapbook and then, later, retrieve it for use elsewhere.

Office 2004 goes old-school with its new Scrapbook feature, available via the new Toolbox palette. You can store text and graphic tidbits in the Scrapbook by dragging them in from any Office application. Once you've put an item in the Scrapbook, it's always there when you need it - for example, if you've placed a photo in PowerPoint but now need to reuse it in Word.

Office 2004's Scrapbook goes one better than the old Apple Scrapbook by allowing sorting and searching. You can assign keywords to items and assign items to categories and projects. Using the two pop-up menus, you can view a Scrapbook item by creation date, keyword, title, size, creation application, and project.