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Microsoft Adds Collaboration to the Office Suite Mix

Piggybacking off the latest upgrade to its franchise product, Microsoft Tuesday detailed new collaboration and group productivity tools that take advantage of changes in Office 11.

The software components of the new version of Office the basics: include Word for document authoring, Excel for spreadsheet applications, PowerPoint for multimedia presentations and Outlook for e-mail and calendar management.

The enhanced Microsoft Office System also consists of updates to other information work programs such as Visio, FrontPage, Publisher and Project; two completely new programs, Microsoft Office OneNote and Microsoft Office InfoPath; and four servers, including the new Office Live Communications Server 2003 and Exchange Server 2003.

Speaking in Orlando, Florida at Gartner's annual technology conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said he expects the new version of Office to "revolutionize" the ways users can devise proposals, and share data about financials, marketing, product and business plans.

"The resources debuting today were developed for finance, human resources, operations and sales professionals and represent the first wave of a broader Microsoft effort to go one step further in helping Office meet the needs associated with specific jobs," Microsoft said Tuesday in a statement.

More telling than just a basic upgrade, Microsoft also said the new software suite has an ability to make documents and e-mails "self-destruct." The feature allows users to control how other people use the documents, which they create. One feature prevents other people from forwarding, copying or printing an e-mail message or document that the sender wants to provide a layer of security. Experts expect the technology will protect most users, but it is not impossible that hackers would find ways around the planned software security protection features.

Only customers that add rights controls to Office 2003 will be able to disintegrate documents, e-mails and provide additional security. All users of the feature will also have to be linked to an intermediary computer with Windows Server 2003 and an additional software package known as Rights Management Service installed, as well.

The system will allow for a protected e-mail message to be time stamped and only reside on a server, whereby the message will become unreadable after a certain point.

The collaboration software for Office System 2003 from Microsoft will come with a price. Customers can expect to shell out anywhere from $150 to $500 to add the ability to share documents and research. Users will be able to communicate from within Word, Excel, Outlook or other software applications using data sharing over the Internet.

It remains unclear how many Office users will be compelled to pay between $150 and $500 per user to upgrade to the new version of the software. Questions are also being raised about security and the new version of Office, and those concerns could stymie the choice to upgrade, or not.

While Microsoft is eager to introduce new products, it is unclear, what the shelf life of the Office System 2003 upgrade will be, especially since the company has said it intends to offer a new version of its Windows operating system within the next few years. With a new version of Windows, Microsoft would undoubtedly require customers to pay for another upgrade of the Office software suite.

Another issue working against the adoption of the new Office upgrade is the fact that the bulk of enterprises have yet to upgrade their systems to Windows XP, which is crucial for running the latest software.

Despite the hurdles it faces, Microsoft also is clearly adding features to its franchise product that reflect innovation and corporate recognition that adopting Internet standards are crucial to the company's future.

The new version of Office does provide support for XML (Extensible Markup Language) , the emerging standard for converting computer documents into published Web pages, which are structured for collaboration.

As part of its Office upgrade launch is focusing on what it calls "Job-Specific Tools for Office 2003."

Microsoft collaborated with a number of companies to create resources for assisting Office System 2003 users including FranklinCovey Co., HR.com, Immedient, VividOffice and Enlightened Concepts LLC.

Several other companies made product announcements around the launch of the Office upgrade, including KnowNow, Inc., which said it's LiveSheet 2.0 for Microsoft Excel now supports Microsoft Office 2003.

"With support for the newest version of Office, KnowNow LiveSheet now provides compatibility with the full line of Microsoft Office products, including Office XP, Office 2000 and Office 97, giving enterprises maximum flexibility to maintain or upgrade their heterogeneous desktop environments as they see fit," KnowNow said.

Anystream said its Agility Presenter for PowerPoint will enable users of Microsoft Office PowerPoint2003 capture their slide show presentations.

Microsoft said it contracted Navigant Consulting to provide research which "showed that information workers using the solutions gained an average of two hours in productive time each week without working longer hours, that the companies realized a median net present value of $4,000 per worker, and that the solutions paid for themselves in an average of just eight months."

"With six suites, 11 products, four servers, one service and Solution Accelerators, the new Microsoft Office System is evidence of Microsoft's focus on helping information workers, the teams they work on, and the companies they work for become more productive and achieve their goals," Microsoft said.

Microsoft went onto say the upgrade also "includes downloadable templates, tips, expert articles and more than 50 animated demonstrations of the Microsoft Office System, including many that describe how specific challenges can be met."