Office 2003 About Collaboration, Business Process Integration

NEW YORK -- Microsoft launched its 2003 version of Microsoft Office in a worldwide series of events that emphasized the advantages of deploying the desktop productivity applications with related back-end servers and services for collaboration and business process integration.

The new integration emphasis resulted in one of Microsoft's largest product launches to date. "This is the most products launched on a single day in Microsoft's history," chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates told the audience at the main launch event in a New York hotel on Tuesday.

Microsoft unveiled a total of 18 products from Office applications to Office-branded servers to Office-branded services all wrapped together under the title "Office System." Components include Word 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager, Access 2003, PowerPoint 2003, Publisher 2003, InfoPath 2003, OneNote 2003, Visio 2003, Project 2003, FrontPage 2003, Publisher 2003, SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Live Communications Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003, Live Meeting and Microsoft Office Solution Accelerators.

A major delivery vehicle for core Office programs like Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint is the Office Suite. Microsoft has four of those this time ranging from the flagship Professional Edition, to the Standard Edition to the Student and Teacher Edition to the new Small Business Edition, which was unveiled Wednesday.

With an installed base of 400 million Office users, there's little room for growth in sales to customers who don't already have and use Office. As with the Office XP release two years ago, Microsoft's major challenge is to convince customers that the word processing and e-mail programs they've used on a daily basis for years don't actually meet their needs.

Jeff Raikes, group vice president for productivity and business services, put his spin on the problem during his segment of the Gates keynote. "Isn't what we have out there good enough?" Raikes asked. He answered his own rhetorical question by arguing that users are overwhelmed by e-mail and spam, that the current software doesn't adequately support collaboration needs, and that it's still too hard for IT departments to seamlessly connect office workers to the back-end business data they need.

Upselling Office

Whether or not Raikes' arguments represent genuine problems, Microsoft stands to benefit if the industry runs out to address them. Microsoft has positioned many of the improvements in Office to depend on purchases or upgrades of higher-priced servers that will support them. While Office 2003 may not bring Microsoft as big a jump in incremental Office revenues as previous Office upgrades did, the company is now trying to leverage its massive Office customer base to drive revenues into its server products and services.

For example, the collaboration capabilities that Microsoft is touting for the Office System come through the SharePoint technologies that require a server upgrade to Windows Server 2003. More full-featured collaboration capabilities come with Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Project Server 2003 and Live Meeting. Most of the spam fighting capabilities depend on deployment of Exchange Server 2003. The business integration capabilities enabled by new Smart Documents technology in the Office applications and the new InfoPath XML client benefit from back-end investments in BizTalk Server 2003, although XML can be exposed by non-Microsoft, back-end systems.

Licensing 6.0

At the same time that Microsoft faces complaints that it is pushing a new product on the market that few users realize they need, it faces its own self-created pressure to deliver a new version of Office to satisfy Licensing 6.0 customers. Organizations that bought Software Assurance agreements under Licensing 6.0 need a new version of the software every three years or so to justify the amount they spend in upgrade protection. Office XP was released in June 2001, so Microsoft is delivering in plenty of time for Office from a Licensing 6.0 perspective. That could help the company appease users who may be upset when the company misses the yardstick with the Longhorn operating system.

Collaboration Improvements

Microsoft hopes to convince the enterprise that the existing model of collaborating on documents by e-mailing the documents as attachments to members of a team is not efficient enough. Gates proposed several scenarios where e-mail attachments fail as a collaboration vehicle. The paradigm works badly when in groups with a large number of recipients, for decision makers who should only be seeing the documents at certain critical points and when it's necessary to add new recipients to the process.

The Microsoft Office 2003 solution is for work teams to create SharePoint sites where they can collaborate on documents or projects. Microsoft introduced the technology as part of Office in the past, but it didn't take off. This time the service comes as an add-on for Windows Server 2003 in the form of Windows SharePoint Services.

Once an IT department enables SharePoint services on a server, IT doesn't need to be involved in setting up individual sites, Gates said. Within Microsoft, employees have set up 25,000 such sites around projects, according to one slide in Gates' presentation.

Changes to Existing Office Programs

For all the worries about pushing out upgrades on products that users are perfectly comfortable with, Microsoft has managed to find some places for dramatic improvements in desktop applications that have kept their basic form for 10 years.

"I'd say that Outlook is the most changed module that we have in this suite," Gates said of Microsoft's flagship e-mail client. The 2003 version uses a vertical preview pane that provides a larger viewing area. It also features intuitive new ways to organize messages in folders and multi-colored flags to prioritize among messages that require follow up. Spam filtering is much more robust, although only through integration with Exchange Server 2003. The interface of Outlook Web Access 2003, again through Exchange Server 2003, is much closer to the interface of the full Outlook client.

A few changes to Word stand out, including a new research pane that allows Internet and third-party searches without switching out to a browser. A new reading layout allows readers to view several pages at once. Smart documents, a new Microsoft technology across several Office products including Word, Excel and Outlook, are for programming forms that help a user fill them out. Siemens, the largest early adopter of Office 2003 at 330,000 seats, already claims a $315,000 savings from reducing development time in updating company-wide forms through the use of smart documents.

New Office Programs

Although the main emphasis of the Office 2003 launch is on extending desktop productivity through integration with servers and services, Microsoft did launch one new product in the old desktop productivity mold. OneNote 2003 is a stand-alone productivity tool in the tradition of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft has big hopes for OneNote: "We believe this is the future of notetaking," Gates said. Part of the reason it's the future of notetaking is that it depends on a Tablet PC for the flashiest part of its functionality -- digital ink. As the Tablet PC version of Windows has only been out for a year, and there are 400,000 units on the market, the digital ink portion of OneNote's functionality is currently limited to a tiny subset of the global office market.

Microsoft contends it will have value for more traditional desktops, though. "Although it does support ink, this is usable and a big advance for machines that are not a tablet," Gates said. Among the features that Microsoft hopes will spur OneNote adoption include the ability to write or type anywhere on the screen, much as a note-taker would use a pen and paper; the ability to make audio recordings of meetings that tie in to the note document; and the ability to search for keywords in previous notes.

If OneNote represents a bygone focus of Office programs, the other new program, InfoPath, exemplifies the new focus. It is a desktop product more like Visio in that it is designed for use by a power user. Its purpose of creating forms with data validation capabilities and moving data around in an XML format fit closely with the business-process integration themes of Office 2003. Gates positioned it as the missing piece of the "disconnect between business processes and the Office products [that] has used a lot of Office workers' time."

Office first launched in October 1990. The product has grown from a bundle of three unrelated applications to the current "Office System" of 18 products and four suites.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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