While Microsoft launched its latest Office suite of productivity programs this year without as much fanfare as its Windows Vista operating system, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is touting these new office applications -- the latest in Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, Word and others -- to be a major step forward in the evolution of business productivity tools.

Two major improvements found in Microsoft Office 2007 are the user-interface (including better search) and collaboration software, both of which are designed to keep your growing business organized, productive and competitive.

New Office features

  • New interface: The older pull-down menus and toolbars interface have been replaced with a tabbed "Ribbon" that efficiently displays the commands that are most relevant for that section. An example would be the "Page Layout" Ribbon in Microsoft Word 2007, which opens up many aesthetic options to choose from. Another new feature is called Galleries. Rather than seeing a list of complex dialog boxes, users are presented with a visual set of formatting options to choose from when working on a document, spreadsheet, presentation, or database. This proves to be a faster and more efficient way to create professional-looking work. What's more, before you make any changes, you will see a "Live Preview" of the change in your document simply by hovering your mouse over one of the options. A handy Instant Search window that lets you easily locate keywords throughout any Office application (even attachments).
  • Online Collaboration: While this may appeal more to those in mid-size companies than small office/home office environments, another lauded program found in some versions of Microsoft Office 2007 is known as SharePoint. This tool makes it easier for employees to work together -- even if they're not in the same location as it offers online collaboration, where people can work simultaneously on documents, spreadsheets or calendar appointments over the Internet -- and chat via their computer while doing so. Consider the alternative: one employee working on, say, a press release for a new product, who then must e-mail it around to others within the organization for approvals and edits, before it's ready to be published. Now, the document can be written, edited, and approved simultaneously, even if employees are spread out throughout the world.

Deciding whether to upgrade

The big question remains: do these new and improved features justify the cost to upgrade for small and mid-size business?

“If all you’re doing is run-of-the-mill document creation and editing, then upgrading to Office 2007 would be akin to buying a Porsche to fetch the groceries,” says Carmi Levy, senior vice president for strategic consulting at AR Communications, a Toronto-based marketing communications firm.

“Yes, the new version of Office has advanced the state-of-the-art for desktop productivity applications, but why would you spend the money if your reliable old Honda is already doing the job quite nicely?” adds Levy, rhetorically.

“Deciding whether or not to upgrade [to Office 2007] is one of those decisions you make after you assess what you’re going to use it for,” agrees Jupiter Research’s vice president and research director, Michael Gartenberg. “There are many new usability features and improvements in functionality, such as collaboration and sharing, but if you’re solid on an older version there’s no immediate reason to upgrade -- especially if you’re on a tight budget.”

Levy believes the online collaboration tools alone might justify the upgrade cost for some small and mid-size businesses, which are increasingly dealing with remote workers, branch offices, and traveling employees. “Companies that rely heavily on document collaboration -- either internally between project teams or externally with customers and suppliers -- might really benefit from Office 2007’s richer document sharing capabilities.”

On the flipside, however, industry experts warn it might be a case of taking two steps back to move three ahead: “Upgrading to new software could slow you down for a while until you and your employees get used to the changes,” cautions Gartenberg.

Small and mid-size businesses "will also have to consider the training costs of moving their employees to the new version of Office,” adds Levy. “That’s because the latest edition of the suite sports a radically new interface that represents a major change from the menu-driven environment that’s dominated Office for the better part of the last 15 years.” Levy's conclusion: Small and mid-size businesses "without the resources and the time to retrain their users may want to wait.”