Spreading the Word About Office

When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Group Vice President Jeff Raikes
swing open the doors to Office 2003, arguably the single biggest upgrade in
the line’s history, Microsoft is hoping to usher in a new era in enterprise
client/server computing.

Throughout the 1990s and even after the dot-com bubble, promises were
made about interoperable systems, real-time online collaboration and the
free exchange of data via standards-based schemas and protocols like XML
. But the average office worker has rarely seen any evidence of
those connectivity miracles incorporated into their desktop applications let
alone felt any benefits from them.

That’s all about to change on Tuesday in New York City with the launch of
Microsoft Office 2003, which according to company officials and analysts
represents the greatest effort to date by the Redmond, Wash., giant to
integrate the popular productivity suite throughout the enterprise.

“Over the last decade, Microsoft’s products have become much more
enterprise-capable,” said Peter Kastner, executive vice president at
Aberdeen Group.

No longer dubbed just a “productivity suite,” the Microsoft Office System
for the first time will incorporate Microsoft SharePoint intranet and portal
technology as well as technology scooped up through the its acquisitions of
Placeware and Visio
in addition to newer Office tools like information management programs,
InfoPath and OneNote. Of course, PowerPoint, Word, Excel and the old staples
are still there — just like they have been since the early 1990s when the
package was first bundled. The company is concurrently releasing Microsoft
Exchange server software to accompany the Outlook client. And this heavy
emphasis on back-end technology as well as integration really differentiates
the new Office System from previous Office offerings.

“While it still is about [Word, Excel, etc.] — we’re never going to stop
those things — we’re moving beyond thinking about individuals and personal
productivity to thinking more about teams and team productivity. This is the
goal for the whole Office system,” explained Simon Marks, product manager of
Microsoft Office.

“It’s not just about how to make a better word processor, it’s about how
we can help people do a better job,” Marks told internetnews.com
during a brief telephone interview.

Ironically, though, many of the bells and whistles of the new Office
System won’t be self-evident to end-users upon release. That’s because the
benefits will initially be felt more on the IT side whether or not that was
intentional by design. For example, by allowing Outlook to work offline more
during a session, an Office/Exchange customer can cut down on LAN traffic.

“Large companies will be able to reduce the number of Exchange servers
through consolidation,” Kastner said.

That said, office workers and end-users still will easily notice many new
features with familiar Office components. For instance, Microsoft has really
worked over Outlook, which has new reading and navigation panes as well as
enhanced anti-spam filtering. To be sure, other improvements like
Microsoft’s security enhancements that give customers more control over
scripts and macros or anti-virus protection were clearly built with IT
administrators in mind.

“This is a particularly important launch for Microsoft because the
company wants to get as many upgrade licenses as possible at a time when the
incremental client features won’t be all that evident to many individual
users. However, Aberdeen recommends that IT departments take a close look at
the Office 2003 offering with an emphasis on the new capabilities of
InfoPath, SharePoint and OneNote,” Kastner concluded in a recent report.

But security issues continues to dog Microsoft’s server-side offerings.
And it continues to take heat from competitors for not having a single,
cohesive infrastructure offering but rather 250 separate brands that
fragments the various components of enterprise computing into Microsoft’s
product structure.

“The nature of the product fragments information from multiple types of
data stores,” said Rob Koplowitz, senior director of product marketing for
Oracle Collaboration Suites.

Six New Editions: To Each, His Own

While some Microsoft officials try hard to avoid the phrase “bundle” to
describe the new Office system at the risk denigrating the innovation as
another sign of Redmond’s product-tying, other ardent supporters still argue
that Microsoft is rolling out its massive Office relaunch out of necessity
more than anything else: to fend off the effects the harshest business
climate the IT industry has ever seen; to accelerate the upgrade cycle; and
even branch out into new licensing revenue opportunites.

“To get the new Office, you need to get XP and 350 million desktops have
not upgraded to XP,” explained Brian Skiba, analyst at Deutsche Bank.

The new Office System, which is technically version No. 11 for those of
you who are counting, follows the tempered release of Office XP, in which
Microsoft tried to incorporate the product
anti-piracy feature that was also first used in the XP
operating system. And since releasing Office XP, the company also changed
its software licensing structure and adopted the Software
Assurance program
that, while beneficial for some Office customers,
pushed other customers to go with its volume-licensing option.

In April, Microsoft defined the six
that would make up the new offering: Student and Teacher
Edition, Basic Edition, Standard Edition, Small Business Edition,
Professional Edition and the Professional Enterprise Edition. Pricing for
those six editions were announced when Office was released to
in August.

Of those six new editions, only the Professional Enterprise Edition and
Professional Edition will include support for the
custom-defined XML schemas
offered by InfoPath. So how can a small
businesses of 30 people truly take advantage of Office’s fully-customizable,
collaborative features? Even though customers cannot define their own
schemas to tag the data according to their business process
needs, Microsoft believes that small business edition users can still
benefit from customized Office solutions.

Last week at Microsoft’s Office Developer Conference in Palm Springs,
Calif., the company released a new Visual Studio tool specifically for
Office integration into the .NET framework. Based on Visual
Basic for Applications (VBA), Visual Studio
Tools for the Microsoft Office isn’t confined to specific editions of
Microsoft Office and represents a renewed attempt extract more licensing
revenue from developers. In tandem with the launch on Tuesday, Microsoft
will merge the VBA site with the Office Developer Center on the Microsoft
Developer Network (MSDN), which the company claims serves as many as 3
million developers.

“What the new tools aims to do is bring Visual Studio .NET development to
solutions built on Office where Word and Excel are the user interface,” said
Robert Green, lead product manager of Visual Studio.

In the wake of slower PC sales and tightened IT budgets, the additional
licensing push certainly helps to offset the slower-growing Office
business — long perceived to be the most vital cash cow for Microsoft next
to its OS business. But previously critics have decried the new Office
bundle as an attempt by the company to empower its customers to buy into an
Microsoft architecture
in order to truly unlock the potential promised
by XML data. For example, the non-professional versions of Office will only
have pre-packaged schemas ready-made by Microsoft called “WordML” and
“SpreadsheetML” — which lets the user read and write the data as XML but
doesn’t let developers define how it is tagged. Indeed, Microsoft has
previously stated that Office 2003 represents another leg in its Web services

But even its competitors like Oracle will admit that building off of
Microsoft’s lock of the desktop software market makes for good business.
Koplowitz acknowledges that Oracle is actively looking into how its
Collaborative Suite can work better with Office 2003.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Microsoft faces with the new Office System
is increasing awareness about the latest improvements in order to achieve
the company’s stated goal of transforming the personal productivity software
into a tool for the new collaborative work environment.

“The average users use only a tiny fraction of what Office can do.
Microsoft probably hasn’t done a good job yet articulating what Office can
do beyond how it’s used today,” Skiba said.

To this end, even the Office product manager agrees.

“There are certain areas where we are trying to improve that,” Marks
said. The Microsoft exec highlighted the Office
Solutions Accelerator
as one instance where Microsoft tried to drive
awareness by adopting the desktop technology in specific tasks such as HR

“This is certainly the biggest upgrade of Office since Office 97. Anyone
still running 97 will see major improvements,” Marks added.

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