There’s nothing quite so intimidating as the vast, pure whiteness of the blank page. To help you get past that frightening expanse of nothingness office apps have long included templates designed to make your docs look better, but also to help avoid the emptiness of starting.
However, while Google Docs can match most of the features of desktop apps, templates were one place it fell flat — there were a handful of templates, but for the most part they were ugly.
But there are now over 300 templates to choose from, many of which are actually quite nice designs (the dreaded Comic Sans themed template is nowhere to be seen). The new interface allows you to sort through templates based on kind or category. If you see something you like, you can preview it and then click the “Use this template” button to add it to your own documents.
Included in the library is a wealth of information on how to develop for Microsoft Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint binary file formats (.doc, .xls, .xlsb and .ppt). Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 documents are also included. The technical documents are aimed at encouraging data portability, or the ability to transfer information from Microsoft products to other applications.
“Microsoft’s cumulative posting of approximately 50,000 pages of technical documentation on MSDN provides consistent, open access for all developers,” said Craig Shank, general manager of Interoperability at Microsoft, “which enhances the ease and opportunities for working with Microsoft’s high-volume products.”
The press announcement, under the headline “Microsoft Takes Additional Steps in Implementing Interoperability Principles,” suggests Microsoft’s aim is to adapt to today’s playing field by opening their software and systems to the marketplace. The strategy rivals Google, Yahoo and the open-source community by being more open and relying on the development community outside the company walls for driving the industry’s technology. Previously, Microsoft played a pretty heavy hand by forcing the industry to rely on their proprietary formats with little or no support. Developers were left with no choice as Microsoft faced very little competition.
These days, as technology moves more online and competing companies begin opening their technology for community involvement, the tables have shifted slightly as Microsoft is forced to adapt or fall behind. Microsoft still owns the dominant method of data file formats. However, developers have shown the power to influence data formats and are most often attracted to where the technology is available.
Lately, that data format of choice has been XML, an open data format particularly popular within web applications. As the the format gains steam through adoption, it has posed a threat to Microsoft’s file formats. In fact, Microsoft’s latest iterations of its file formats, a technology named OpenXML, is based on XML technology.
The new release, coincidentally announced on the first business day after founder and CEO Bill Gates left the company, shows a new interest in working with the developer community in propagating these data formats.
Microsoft released a set of Open XML converters for Mac users Tuesday. The tool and update to Mac Office 2004 allows users to convert files created by the 2007 and 2008 versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
The strength of Microsoft file formats is its dominance in the market. If you want your file to be opened by anyone, sending it in .doc, .xls or .ppt is a safe bet. When the company released Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for Mac using its newly developed Open XML format by default, older versions of Office were left incompatible. The incompatibility was fixed late last year for 2003 Windows versions, but Mac Office users were left out in the cold.
With Microsoft’s converters and its recent ratification as an ISO standard, .docx, .xlsx and .pptx files are on their way to becoming the dominant transferable file format.
The converters also follow an announcement by MacBU’s Craig Eisler announcing Microsoft’s largest hiring spree to their Mac unit in history. It looks like the updates and the announcement herald Microsoft’s impending strategy to keep from losing customers to applications like OpenOffice, Google Docs and Zoho office suites which already have tools for converting Microsoft formats.
Microsoft has released a new software development kit for programmers interested in working with the company’s controversial Open Office XML file formats (the name has since been shortened to the misleading “Open XML”).
On the surface it would seem that such a move means better cross-application compatibility between various office suites, but unfortunately the new SDK is limited and doesn’t even support the version of OOXML that has been tentatively ratified by the ISO standards body.
Given that the new SDK supports the version of OOXML that shipped with Office 2007, rather than the one that may end up with ISO certification, many see the new SDK as an attempt to undermine open source development.
Since the new API includes a whole host of soon-to-be-deprecated features, it would appear to be near useless for developers wanting to support an ISO approved standard.
Microsoft has already admitted that it will be very difficult to support the revised version of OOXML in its own office suite, which probably doesn’t lend outside developers much confidence about supporting it in their apps.
Other limitations in the new SDK include a dependancy on the .NET framework, which isn’t surprising given Microsoft is heavily invested in .NET. But if the goal is better cross-application support, tying the API to a proprietary development framework strikes us an an odd way to go about it.
As with most things surrounding OOXML, the new SDK and APIs appear to be little more than a smokescreen designed to garner Microsoft some positive press.
In end the end we suspect the whole debate will be rendered moot by upcoming web apps like Zoho and Google Docs, which may well end up replacing the desktop office suite before OOXML can ever gain the foothold Microsoft is looking to secure.
Adobe has launched a new online office suite that brings together several existing Adobe services under a new domain — Acrobat.com. Adobe’s online office tools include its Buzzword word processor, the conferencing app ConnectNow and a 5GB online storage area for sharing documents with other Acrobat.com users.
Most readers are no doubt familiar with Buzzword, the Flash-based Adobe word processor that we’ve looked a couple of times. Less well known is ConnectNow, which allows you to host live meetings over the web with chat, screen sharing, whiteboards, VoIP, and video conferencing features.
While Acrobat.com is available through your browser and is squarely aimed at competing with the likes of Google Docs and Zoho Office, Adobe is also offering a version that runs from the desktop via AIR. For the moment, the AIR version doesn’t allow offline document access and syncing, but Adobe claims that will be part of a future release.
Aside from a much slicker interface, Acrobat.com doesn’t offer many features above and beyond what you’ll find in Google Docs or Zoho Office. However, when the AIR version gains offline syncing capabilities, Adobe may possibly have a real winner on its hands. Other potentially interesting developments include the possibility of integrating Photoshop Express, the company’s online version of Photoshop, into the suite.
The new Acrobat 9 — due to arrive in July 2008 — will feature the ability to embed outside documents in a PDF file. Essentially Adobe is turning PDF into a file container format — think .zip, but without the need to unzip.
The idea is that instead of having to send a PDF, a separate Excel file and a Flash presentation, you could simply embed your Excel and Flash files in a single PDF file.
Perhaps I’m missing something, but the PDF Portfolios, as Adobe is calling them, seem (like so much of Acrobat) wholly unnecessary. After all, if you’re sharing your documents online via Acrobat.com, isn’t it far easier to just send a link that offers access to all your files, rather than bulking up someone’s inbox with PDF attachments?
Acrobat 9 will ship in a number of different versions ranging from the low end at $300 to the full-featured mothership for $700. As always, Adobe Reader will be free.
For now Acrobat.com is beta offering and Adobe has yet to announce pricing, but we can tell you that it will be subscription-based — most likely there will be a basic, free version with additional storage and features available for a price.