MS Updates Squash Bugs in Office Suite

jim@jimheid.com

Earlier this month, Microsoft Corp. won an Industrial Design Excellence Award for the package design of Office 2001 for the Mac--the little plastic case that looks like a cross between a UFO and a toilet seat. I can just imagine the talk among the competition's jurors: "How clever--software packaging that has no room for a printed manual. Give it the gold!"

The award is the latest in the string of successes from Microsoft's Mac Business Unit--the group behind the best software Microsoft makes.

But no office is perfect, and there have been some Office 2001 developments since I reviewed the package here last fall. Microsoft has released updates that fix bugs, add features or plug security holes. All are free for the downloading from http://www.microsoft.com/mac/download, where you'll find numerous goodies for Office 2001 and other Microsoft Mac products.

Your first download should be the update named Office 2001 Service Release 1. This is a collection of bug fixes and tweaks for all four members of the Office family: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. Installing the update is a one-click proposition--provided you haven't renamed or customized the icons of the Office programs or changed other files in the Office folder. If you have, the updater won't work, and the Office programs are likely to crash when you try to start them. When that happens, you'll have to reach for that award-winning plastic case and reinstall Office from its original CD.

Although many of the bugs squashed by Service Release 1 are obscure, you'll need to install it in order to install the next update on our tour: the Word Security Update, which plugs a potential security hole in Microsoft Word. This hole would allow Word to execute a potentially malicious macro (a series of instructions) without first warning you that it was about to do so. The threat is relatively small--the macro would have to be embedded in a Rich Text Format (RTF) file, rather than in a normal Word document--but in these viral days, even small security holes should be taken seriously. If you routinely exchange word processing documents with other users, it's a good idea to install this update.

And speaking of malicious code, the Mac version of Microsoft's free Outlook Express e-mail program recently fell victim to a piece of "malware," or malicious software. The Simpsons AppleScript Worm, as it's called, works much like many of the viruses that have recently plagued the Windows versions of Outlook: It arrives as an e-mail attachment, and when opened, it sends a copy of itself to everyone in your Outlook Express address book.

Though many recent Windows viruses have masqueraded as pinup pictures, the Simpsons worm purports to be a list of secret episodes of the TV show "The Simpsons." I'm not sure if this difference says anything about Mac users or Mac virus programmers. In any case, the Simpsons worm is little more than an annoyance--it doesn't delete files or cause any other damage. And avoiding it is easy: Don't open an attachment named Simpsons Episodes, even if it was sent by somebody you know.

The Simpsons worm relies on the Mac's AppleScript automation technology to do its dirty work. Microsoft's Entourage e-mail program is potentially vulnerable too, but as I noted here back in February, Entourage provides protection against AppleScript worms. If a script attempts to send e-mail, Entourage warns you and gives you a chance to cancel the operation.

And that's yet another good reason to upgrade to Entourage, which shares Outlook Express' straightforward interface but adds a calendar and schedule manager and tight ties with the rest of the Office family. Microsoft has just made upgrading to Entourage less expensive too. If you don't need the PowerPoint presentation program or the Excel spreadsheet package, you can buy the new Word 2001 and Entourage bundle. The awkwardly named Word + Entourage 2001 SE sells for $149 and should be reaching stores within a week or so. Episodes of "The Simpsons" will be sold separately.

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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