Office Beta Eyes SMB

Microsoft is prepping the second beta of Office 2003 with new CRM-type features designed to attract more small and medium-size businesses.

Microsoft Corp. is prepping the second beta of Office 2003 with new CRM-type features designed to attract more small and medium-size businesses, as well as other features to sway enterprises to upgrade.

Beta 2 of Office 2003, the upgrade to Office XP, due by midyear, will include a new feature called Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager, as well as the first incarnations of DRM (digital rights management) in the suite.

Sources familiar with the product said Business Contact Manager, previously code-named Iris and aimed at the SMB market, will let users track clients, create accounts, generate product lists, and track sales and account leads.

"[Its] a nice [customer relationship management]-type solution for small business that plugs in to the Outlook framework," said Joe Eschbach, corporate vice president of Microsofts Information Worker Product Management Group, in Redmond, Wash. "Its a sales-process contact manager solution. It will function as a desktop application and not need other Microsoft server products to work."

The Office team worked with Microsofts Business Solutions team to develop the new tool, which is not designed to compete with third-party contact managers such as Interact Commerce Corp.s Act and FrontRange Solutions Inc.s Goldmine, Eschbach said.

SMBs are a largely untapped market for Microsoft, Eschbach said. No packaging or pricing decisions have been made yet, and Eschbach declined to say if Business Contact Manager will ship as part of Office 2003 and Outlook.

On the enterprise front, Office 2003 Beta 2 will give testers their first view of the DRM technology in the product. "The information rights management solution is one of the most compelling solutions in Office 2003 for enterprises," Eschbach said, adding that this solution will run only in conjunction with the upcoming Windows Server 2003. However, Eschbach said, Beta 2 code will include a trial solution that could be run without Windows Server 2003. Testers can try the feature using Microsoft Passport for validation and authentication. "But longer term, its for enterprises who want it to work inside their intranet and do authentication on a central server," Eschbach said.

While managers may welcome DRM, some systems administrators are less enthusiastic, saying it will add complexity.

"Solutions like this have the potential to create utter chaos," said a systems administrator for a consultancy based in Mountain View, Calif., who requested anonymity. "What happens if someone who put a document under controls gets fired or leaves without sharing his password? What if another person incorrectly applies the controls and is then on leave or unable to be contacted?" Eschbach said a systems administrator could override controls.

On other fronts, Microsoft wants to ensure that the suites file formats give users full access to its XML schemas, which allow "smart documents" to be created in Office 2003. "The goal is not to have another proprietary lock-in schema. The No. 1 push in Office 2003 is user-defined schema," Eschbach said.

Bill Coan, president of Coan and Company Inc., in Hortonville, Wis., whose company develops custom templates and add-ins for corporate users, said, "I expect Office 2003 to support user-defined schemas, which are, by definition, nonproprietary. Five years from now, well ... realize that Office 2003s support for user-defined XML schemas was the biggest change in desktop computing since the mouse."

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