New Microsoft Office version launches

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates is kicking off a series of high-profile events this week to unveil the latest edition of Microsoft Office to the world. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is slated to roll out the latest generation of its market-share-dominating productivity suite in selected cities around the country, from New York to Spokane, Minneapolis to San Antonio -- and virtually every major market in between, according to the firm.

The formal unveiling takes place today, when Bill Gates and company take the stage at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in New York and show off what observers say is an exceptionally broad offering that looks to take Office far beyond its roots as a desktop productivity package. By using XML in the new Office, "the flow of information between the desktop and the back-end applications is revolutionized," Gates has said.

The new Office suite (Microsoft now prefers "system" to "suite") encompasses the 2003 editions of the expected core applications, such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access, along with applications that are said to significantly ramp up its collaborative capabilities. Among these are SharePoint, Microsoft's teamwork and collaboration tool, and InfoPath, a new application for designing and executing dynamic electronic forms and data input templates. In fact, collaboration appears to be the name of the game in this new release.

"In designing the new Microsoft Office System, we worked extensively with customers to understand how we could best help them solve business challenges such as managing rapidly changing business conditions, responding to customers more quickly, faster products and services innovation, and improving customer business relationships," said Joe Eschbach, VP of the Information Worker Product Management Group at Microsoft, in a statement. "With today's diverse work environments posing a significant barrier to productivity, it was no surprise to hear over and over again that helping their employees better collaborate was at the top of their lists."

Industry observers note that Microsoft faces significant development and licensing issues as new versions of widely installed, de facto standard products are unveiled. In the past, Office rollouts have been significant occasions for Gates and Microsoft. But each rollout has been accompanied by suggestions that upgrades are not widely wanted.

"It's getting harder and harder," said Jeffrey Tarter, longtime industry observer and editor of Soft.Letter. "They're having an increasingly tough time finding features that really inspire anybody to upgrade, especially at the corporate level."

And support issues may now overshadow new features. Tarter said Microsoft licensing moves that threaten to drop support for pre-2000 software show "a measure of desperation. They are driving us along with cattle prods," he said, "driving people to upgrade."

Yet, Tarter added, "Like it or not, this is the collection of apps that basically runs everywhere."

Microsoft claims that participants in its early-adopter program have reported significant productivity gains stemming from their use of the new Office System collaboration and communication tools -- an average productivity gain of 25%, according to Microsoft. Microsoft's list of early road testers of the new Office collaboration apps includes Virgin Entertainment, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin. Microsoft claims that these and other companies have reduced by a third the number of team meetings they conduct by using the new Office System.

Facilitating this emphasis on collaboration and interaction among disparate computer users is Microsoft's enthusiastic implementation of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). XML Web services seem poised to transform enterprise computing -- a recent Gartner survey found that more than half of the North American companies queried are planning to invest in Web services for business-to-business transactions within the next two years -- and Microsoft wants its flagship productivity suite to be part of that transformation.

The 2003 editions of Word, Excel and Access can store data natively in XML, and the new InfoPath app supports any customer-defined XML schema and integrates with XML Web services. Microsoft has also implemented XML support in its new toolset, Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System, which will allow developers to tie Web services into Office apps and support connections between Office documents and corporate computing resources.

Microsoft also appears to be adapting its flagship application bundle to the emerging Tablet PC platform. A new application called OneNote joins the venerable Office lineup to provide users with a means of capturing typewritten and handwritten notes, as well as pictures and diagrams, in a single file, and then organize and share them. (Microsoft debuted the first of this generation of Tablet PCs a year ago and currently makes the only operating system for the platform.)

Other new features in the 2003 editions of the Office applications announced by Microsoft include:

* SmartDocs: XML-based intelligent document format that can contain embedded links to live data such as external databases, and Web pages.

* Word: Now serves as a fully functional XML editor, and the review and mark-up features have been enhanced to change tracking and manage comments.

* Excel: Smart tags in Excel have been overhauled to make them more reactive and accurate.

* Outlook: The UI has been redesigned to provide a full-page view of e-mail.

* PowerPoint: Now offers improved multimedia support, the ability to save presentations straight to CD, and integration with Microsoft Windows Media Player.

* Security: Improved blocking and alerting of macros and malicious code, and new handling of HTML mail to reduce spam and virus activation.

The new Office System consists of the 2003 editions of Microsoft Office, SharePoint Portal Server, Office Project, Project Server, Exchange Server, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, FrontPage, InfoPath, OneNote, Publisher, Visio and the Microsoft Office Solution Accelerators.

About the Authors

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].