When Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Group Vice President Jeff Raikes swing open the doors to Office 2003 this week, 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 burst, promises were made about interoperable systems, real-time online collaboration and the free exchange of data via standards-based schemas and protocols like extensible markup language (XML). But the average office worker has rarely seen any evidence of ththese interactive miracles incorporated into their desktop applications letalone felt any benefits from them.
That's all about to change today 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. software 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 said.
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, Their 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 activation 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 editions 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 manufacturers in August.
Of those six new editions, only the Professional Enterprise Edition and Professional Edition will include support for 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 entire 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 stack.
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 recruiting.
"This is certainly the biggest upgrade of Office since Office 97. Anyone still running 97 will see major improvements," Marks added.
Adapted from internetnews.com.