Visio comes of age, breaks new ground for functionality a second time

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At a conference 18 years ago, a company called Shapeware -- formed by some former Aldus folks I knew from my days as a Macintosh contributor for Computer Shopper a few years earlier -- displayed an add-on product for Microsoft Office that some Microsoft folks told me was the best example of a COM add-in they had ever seen. And since I was known for a particular Corel Draw review where I said the Corel folks figured out something about functionality that the Macintosh folks had missed, they made sure I had a first look and a review copy.

It was called Visio, and it was strong, lightweight (a couple of diskettes rather than a dozen), intuitive, and fast. My comment then -- to the Visio guys, to Microsoft, in print, and online -- was, and has been for two successive decades, this: Why can't PowerPoint be more like Visio?


In the last two decades, amazingly, PowerPoint has changed very little. Visio morphed once from a charting add-on into an application unto itself, something bundled with -- but not attached to -- Word and Excel. But Visio hasn't changed all that much either.

Until now. Come May 12, with the public release of Office 2010, Visio 2010 will have been given a welcome and long overdue refresh, including some fundamental additions to the product beyond simply joining Outlook in embracing the ribbon controls. Today, Microsoft announced its Software Development Kit for Visio 2010 -- for developers to create their own objects and stencils, with clearly defined behaviors for specific tasks -- was released to manufacturing this morning. Visio 2010 itself reached RTM on April 16.

And as some things change, one thing will remain absolutely untouched: my question from 1992. Why can't PowerPoint be more like Visio?

The power of the first Corel Draw, compared to anything else that came before, was how it compressed a broad array of functionality into a handful of graphical tools that resided at or near the object the user was drawing, rather than stationed in some deeply nested dialog box behind a cryptic menu command or keyboard shortcut. The power of the refreshed Visio 2010 is in something similar: the idea of putting the next thing you do on a little palette menu that forms outside the shape you've just drawn. By default, the menu shows the four most frequently used next shapes, typically including another copy of the shape you've just rendered.

Borrowing an idea from the Office 2007 refresh that overhauled mostly Word and Excel, pointing to one of these items gives you a preview of coming attractions, right in front of you on your drawing. You're not plowing through menu options or even palette choices (they're there, but you don't necessarily have to rely upon them). Instead, you see what you're about to draw before you draw it; and in the creation of a chart, which tends to be a purely sequential process anyway, that makes perfect sense.

The new Quick Shapes palette in Visio 2010 anticipates the objects you're likely to draw next in a sequence.

Chris Crane, Visio's product manager, was the first to demonstrate this new feature to me. "We call this a Quick Shapes mini toolbar...This is customizable; we have a new option that says, 'What are my Quick Shapes?' Because I may have a bunch of Quick Shapes from different templates that I'm working with."

This example involves the Cross-Functional Flowchart template, which is used for outlining a procedure that involves multiple departments of people or resources. This is a common template that Visio users will be familiar with, although with the 2010 edition, the template itself has improved (more on that shortly).

Anyway, in this template, if you hover over the last shape you've drawn for a moment, outside the usual nodes along the perimeter (which are for resizing), four very faint compass arrows will appear. When you move the pointer to hover over one of these arrows, the Quick Shapes palette appears (or maybe it's a toolbar, and since I'm an early fan of PageMaker, I'd call it a palette). Then when you hover over one of the shapes, Visio shows you where the shape would appear, along with the arrow or connector leading to it, in the direction of the compass arrow. If the new shape would, in turn, necessitate a change in the rest of the drawing (for example, expanding the height of the "swimlane" in the cross-functional flowchart), then you'll see that change previewed as well.

Think for a moment about how much information you've conveyed to the program without clicking even once. What another program -- maybe one with two capital "P's" in its name -- would convey in a plethora of menus, is offered here by way of a few scoots of the mouse. If you're using multitouch, then the same information may be conveyed using the softest taps. Artists like keeping their tools close to their canvasses, which is why palettes were made to be portable. This design choice speaks to the artist and the draftsperson -- it shows that the ingenuity that made PageMaker, the original Corel Draw, and the first Visio magnificent tools for their day, has not died in the age of Web apps.

Because Visio diagrams are often sequences, it often behaves like a programming tool with respect to the management of those sequences. For example, when you delete an object in the middle of a flowchart, Visio pretends it's a type checker in Visual Studio, and corrects the sequence arrows automatically to compensate. It's not always perfect, as in this example where the elbow of the "Yes" connector knocks into the "No" space on the other connector. But Visio 2010's capability to "heal" a broken sequence, as Microsoft now calls it, is vastly superior to the 2007 version, which often left the user picking up sticks after a wind storm.

Once you've deleted an object in a sequence, Visio does its best to "heal" the other objects, such as connectors, that depended on it.

In cases where a cross-functional flowchart is subdivided not only into swimlanes but also phases, for example, the new Visio will make certain that connector routes always bypass phase boundaries, so they never run into the gutters -- as newspaper layout artists used to say.

Portions of a diagram that may be copied multiple places -- are made easily reusable in Visio 2010. Veteran users will be familiar with containers, which are the analog for "groups" in Corel Draw -- multiple objects grouped together, though in Visio, by means of a common frame. With the new version, the concept of the container is greatly expanded, so that objects that may represent live elements of data (e.g., a server in a network whose diagram reveals its status and specs) can be designated as containers and extended as though they were diagrams in themselves.

"This is both a logical grouping and a visual grouping. So I can now continue to drag things in here and work with this container," Microsoft's Chris Crane told us. "We think of this as ease of use: taking a piece of a process, or parts of an IT network, making visually clear what it is, but also working with it as an entity and drag it around as a single object."

Businesses where Visio can't be installed on everyone's system, are familiar with installing the Visio Viewer app. There will be a 2010 version of this, of course; but for the first time, the new edition will enable a new diagram format called a Web drawing, that on the surface appears to be self-displaying. It isn't really; rather than rely on Visio Viewer, Web drawings (.VDW files) rely on Silverlight.

A live Web diagram from Visio 2010 is shown here rendered in Internet Explorer via Silverlight. [Courtesy Microsoft]

The upshot of this is, a Web drawing that's actually a live diagram of the active components of a network can actually serve as a network monitoring application. "When you pan in, there's excellent fidelity in the resolution, no pixellation at all," said Crane. "So the Visio diagram connected to data becomes more than just a personal BI tool; I can now create organizational, departmental dashboards that are very contextual in nature. I can save those to SharePoint, and then others in my team or group are able to view that in the browser, even if they don't have Visio installed locally. I can refresh that data to get the latest view, and I'm able to see what's the status."

For systems where Silverlight are not installed, the Web drawing is capable of rendering itself as a PNG graphic, Crane told us.

The trial version of the final cut of Visio 2010 is downloadable now from Microsoft.

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