Avoid the Upgrade Trap

Outlook improvements alone are no reason to upgrade, writes eWEEK's Jim Rapoza.

When you look at Microsoft Office, its hard not to feel a little sorry for it. After all, probably no other Microsoft product has been as thoroughly thrashed by its competitors as Office has.

Im not talking about Suns StarOffice and its OpenOffice sibling, though both are excellent suites and certainly give Office 2003 a run for its money as far as quality goes. Nope, its the older relatives of Office 2003 that are stabbing it in the back by refusing to go away and by being every bit as good as 2003 in everything that matters to businesses.

Of course, every product competes with its older versions, but few products have consistently competed as poorly against those older versions as Microsoft Office has. If you go back through all the reviews eWEEK Labs (and PC Week Labs before that) has done of Office, including, they read like a broken record: "Some nice features but no reason for users to upgrade from older versions."

In fact, as Jason Brooks correctly notes in his review of Office 2003, Office 97 was the last new version that was considered a must-upgrade because it was vastly superior to the previous 6.x Office. (Unfortunately, it also marked the debut of Clippy.) So, in Office 2003, we have a new version of Office that cant even be considered a must-upgrade when compared with a version that is 6 years old.

One might ask, "How is this possible?" The answer is simple. Its an office suite. Its made up of a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation program and a simple database. No one wonders why Notepad hasnt changed radically over the years—theres no need to change it. But Notepad doesnt cost hundreds of dollars, and its release isnt trumpeted at big events.

No one understands this more than Microsoft. Office is one of the companys big cash cows, and without regular updates of the suite, Redmond would be in big trouble. To get around the fact that no one really needs a new word processor, Microsoft turned to the strategy of including in the Office suite a core product that does need upgrades.

Im speaking of Outlook. Unlike the rest of the suite, an enterprise messaging client is the type of application that requires regular upgrades. The one component of Office 97 that you really wouldnt want to be trying to use on a daily basis is Outlook. And as Michael Catons review shows, Outlook 2003 is the only component in Office 2003 that is worth upgrading for.

Of course, you can purchase Outlook without all of Office. But it isnt as simple as writing a check for the $109 stand-alone cost versus the $500 for Office 2003. When it comes to volume licensing for corporations, the differences wont be black and white, and Microsoft will do its best to make sure that its more attractive for your company to choose the entire Office suite over just Outlook 2003.

But if you want my advice, stay out of that trap, for a trap is exactly what it is. Look closely at some of the cool new features in Office 2003. Almost all of them will require you to upgrade your desktops and your servers. Almost every cool feature wont work with older versions of Office.

Are CIOs in this business environment planning on upgrading their entire infrastructure in order to deploy a new office suite? Not likely. Are they expecting their business partners to do the same so they can benefit from the new integration features in Office 2003? I dont think so.

Nonetheless, Microsoft will showcase companies diving headfirst into Office 2003 and building great new apps and processes using every little bit of functionality in the suite, all to a soundtrack of popular and semi-hip music.

For most companies, not only is it OK to live in the past, but its also every bit as good as the present as far as Microsoft Office goes. If you feel you need the Outlook client—fight for terms and conditions that are to your advantage and resist terms that tie it to an upgrade of the entire Office suite. Save your IT dollars for the true must-upgrades. Thats the only way Microsoft will get the message that users deserve more value than theyre getting for the time and trouble of staying with Microsoft.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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