For many users, Office 2007 will present an opportunity to work more collaboratively than they ever have before because of the ease with which they will be able to share documents and manage document workflow.
eWEEK Labs tests of Office 2007 Beta 2 show that Microsoft has addressed information sharing in a way that can scale from small workgroups to large enterprises, depending on the Office applications and back-end infrastructure deployed.
One thing that will be required to wring the most out of Offices collaboration features is Office SharePoint Server 2007, but organizations that dont or cant deploy SharePoint will still be able to manage collaboration through network shares and the peer-to-peer capabilities of the Of-fice 2007 applications.
At the client level, three of Office 2007s applications allow users to collaborate directly: Outlook 2007, OneNote 2007 and Groove 2007.
On the server side, Office SharePoint Server 2007 provides a back end for users to work more collaboratively on documents created in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Outlook is the Microsoft collaboration tool most familiar to users, even if its at the most basic level of managing calendars and tasks. With this release of Outlook, however, eWeek Labs found it more practical to share calendars, through calendar sharing and the ability to e-mail a select view of a users calendar to another user outside the organization.
During tests, we could define the amount of information displayed to recipients in terms of event details and the amount of the calendar shared—be it a day, week or month. We liked that Office sent the information as an iCal format attachment, with the calendar data rendered in the message body. (For more on Outlook, see our review of Office 2007 Beta 2, starting on Page 37.)
The calendar-sharing features will make it easier for users to schedule time with people outside the organization, but users will also be able to publish calendars to Microsofts Office Online (and, presumably, services from other vendors, as they decide to integrate directly with Outlook).
Tasks created in Microsoft Project and Access also will synchronize with the Outlook client.
Outlook has a new categorization and flagging methodology. Microsoft has added color-coded categories to make it easier to organize e-mail, calendar items and tasks. Flags now function as a simple task-creation method within Outlook, minus the color coding, making it easy to flag e-mail messages as tasks.
Both categories and flags can be customized. For example, flagging an item for follow-up allows users to pick from a list of deadlines in set time lengths, such as “today,” “tomorrow” and “one week.”
We liked the addition of the expandable To-Do Bar, which provides at-a-glance organization of user calendar and task items.
Outlook integration with OneNote has become a little tighter in this re-lease, making OneNote more broadly applicable as a tool for collecting and structuring meeting data.
For example, the calendar object form now includes a button that launches OneNote and automatically places relevant meeting data in a new, unfiled OneNote page.
On the task management front, flagging items in OneNote now makes the items an Outlook task. In the previous version, users flagged items or marked them as an Outlook task. The flagging tool bar also allowed us to manage task details, such as assigning a task to another user.
OneNote includes two new features that simplify sharing and collaborating on data—the ability to create Notebooks that are collections of OneNote pages and the ability to easily share one of these Notebooks either from a local copy or a copy stored on a network drive or Office SharePoint Server site.
Sharing a Notebook proved relatively easy in our tests—all we needed to do was designate the share location, either locally or on a server, and OneNote created an e-mail message with links to the shared Notebook to be distributed to other users. This feature could also be used to synchronize copies of Notebooks on multiple computers. When sharing a local copy, we did need to ensure we granted appropriate rights to the recipients, a task that required administrative privileges on our Windows XP desktops.
Using Notebooks this way requires some thought and planning on the users part, however. To see changes from other users as they worked on a document, we just needed to synchronize our Notebook periodically. However, there isnt a mechanism for arbitration of changes—the most recent change overwrites previous changes. In addition, users will have to think about the offline requirements.
Beta 2 represents microsofts formal introduction of Groove 2007 into the Office fold. The changes in Groove are not dramatic for the most part, but, for some users, they will be quite useful. We found the most significant change to be direct support for Office SharePoint Server—users can now create a document repository on SharePoint and use Groove as a way to bring files offline in a more managed way than just saving them to a folder on the users PC.
The peer-to-peer Groove also provides a way for companies that use SharePoint Server to manage documents internally. And organizations that have a policy against granting outside access to SharePoint may be OK with sharing info and collaborating over the more tightly managed Groove.
Groove installed on an internal users system can act as a proxy for the Groove user outside the firewall. The internal user needs only to share a document work space, and the public Groove network will handle synchronizing data between the two users. Microsoft will also be providing Groove Enterprise Management Server and Enterprise Relay Server for companies that want to run and manage internal Groove networks.
Microsoft has added an InfoPath forms tool to Groove so developers can share an InfoPath form with Groove users. In our testing, we werent able to get any sample forms to load into a Groove work space. However, InfoPaths macro capability should give teams a way to build more complex workflows in form-based applications in Groove.
Groove will be bundled only in the Enterprise Edition of the Office suite, which means that Microsoft is missing out on an opportunity to help small and midsize businesses quickly build collaborative work spaces without help from IT organizations.
There is plenty of overlap between Groove and other components of Office, including the presence capabilities inherent in the Office Communicator application and the document management and workflow capabilities of Office SharePoint Server. How Groove will fit as an enterprisewide solution isnt entirely clear based on this beta. Even so, Groove should prove quite useful for workgroups with specific collaboration needs.
With Office 2003, Microsoft introduced online document collaboration through Windows SharePoint Services, a set of technologies running on Windows Server 2003 that allowed users to work on documents together in real time.
With the beta release of Office 2007, Microsoft has improved on the platform by tightly integrating Office SharePoint Server 2007 in such a way that it functions as the back end for more structured document and content management. By default, Office SharePoint Services users can share documents from an Office application by saving the document to their personal SharePoint sites.
Users will get additional workflow tools as part of these sites; the tools can be used to manage simple approval and revision processes, as well as to define workflow to shepherd documents through a given process.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at [email protected].