With broad new support for XML, expanded collaboration capabilities and a raft of usability improvements, Microsoft Corp.s Office 2003 is better in every way than the version it replaces.
For many companies, however, better wont be good enough to justify an upgrade. Whats more, the emergence of lower-cost, multiplatform alternatives to Office gives companies a viable option when moving from older Office installations.
Microsoft nailed pretty well the productivity suite basics when Office 97 shipped. Without a change in file formats since then to push things along, subsequent Office releases have had trouble persuading customers to invest anew in tools to create text documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
During extended tests of Office 2003, which will be available this month, eWEEK Labs found many improvements in the way Office handles core productivity tasks. Still, we think the only application that warrants must-upgrade status is Outlook.
Companies whose needs dont extend much beyond office productivity basics might do better to sit tight with their current version of Office or give less costly alternatives, such as StarOffice, a try.
The upgrade case for Office 2003 relies instead on the suites improved extensibility through its XML support and on the way the suite integrates with Microsoft server components on the back end for easing collaboration and controlling information.
While previous versions of Office have been extensible and programmable (with support for Visual Basic for Applications), Office 2003 really expands on the suites potential as a rich client for carrying out business processes and working with database-backed applications.
In Office 2003, Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and the new InfoPath can each produce and consume XML-formatted data, which enables users to open documents to data from Web services or data stores with an XML interface. Along similar lines, Office helps users make data stored in Office documents more accessible and reusable by linking them to a user-defined XML schema and adding context to the document data text by associating it with the schema elements through simple graphical tools.
Microsofts Office 2003 packs some nice usability improvements into its core applications, but its most impressive new features revolve around support for XML and integration of SharePoint Services across most of the suite. At $499 per copy for the Professional Edition, sites that arent planning to build on and deploy these peripheral features may be better off sticking with earlier versions of Office or looking into lower-cost alternatives.
EVALUATION SHORT LIST
Companies can combine Offices XML data facilities, along with its programmable smart tags and task panes, to create what Microsoft calls smart documents—small applications that live in Word or Excel documents.
For example, an organization could build an expense-reporting application in Excel that would look up information based on an entered employee name and would save expense report data to the proper data store. Modifications to a smart document can be centrally made, and deployed documents can be set to check for the latest changes.
Development of these smart documents will require more skill than even the average power user has. In addition, while Office can now be more easily connected than ever to back-end components, Web services and XML-ready data stores dont create themselves. Companies should therefore consider whether it would be wiser to expend development resources on a more cross-platform-friendly framework than Office 2003 provides.
XMLs prime virtue is its openness, but companies that build smart document applications are also closing themselves off. Smart documents work only with Office 2003; users of earlier versions of Word or Excel will be able to open a smart document, but it will be stripped of all its XML secret sauce.
Whats more, Office 2003 comes in a variety of editions, each with its own price and application set. However, only the Professional Editions include support for Offices XML and information rights management features.
Further narrowing the field of potential users of miniapplications developed within Office 2003 is the fact that Office 2003 runs only on Windows XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3. Microsofts Office for OS X is a separate product and at this time doesnt include any of Office 2003s XML functionality.
In addition to XML extensibility, Office 2003s other major value-add theme is its capacity for easing collaboration and enabling a measure of information control. While this functionality requires less in the way of development resources than the suites XML features, it does require investment in Microsoft server technologies on the back end.
Across the suite, Office 2003 is built with hooks to Windows 2003 Servers SharePoint Services; once this is set up, users can create and access document and meeting work spaces for sharing materials and managing document creation and revision.
Word, Excel and PowerPoint now carry a Shared Workspace task pane, which ties in to Microsoft Messenger for determining whether group members assigned to a particular document are present and for launching chats with these members. This task pane also contains a listing of files, links, tasks and other information related to the document at hand.
eWEEK Labs will drill down further into these features in a future story on SharePoint Services and Office collaboration.
Also depending on Windows 2003 Server are Offices new IRM (Information Rights Management) features, which allow document owners to control the files they create with Office by restricting functions such as copying and e-mail forwarding from menu options within Offices applications.
Certain gaps do exist in the protection IRM provides. For example, while the print screen function in Windows wont work while a protected document is open, commonly available third-party screen-grab tools will still operate.
Beyond any gaps in protection, however, our main concern with IRM in Office is its cross-platform unfriendliness: Accessing documents requires the latest versions of Office and Windows. Users can, however, access protected documents (provided theyve been granted permission) using a Microsoft Internet Explorer plug-in, as long as the document in question contains an HTML representation of itself.
The retail version of the Professional Edition costs $499 and ships with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher and Outlook. The volume-licensed version of the Professional Edition adds InfoPath, Microsofts new application for creating and filling out XML forms. Microsoft would not disclose to us its volume licensing prices for Office 2003. Office 2003 Standard Edition—which includes only Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook—costs $399.
Word 2003 closely resembles Word 2002, with most of the changes related to new XML support and therefore situated beneath the surface. Microsoft has expanded its use of the task pane that made its debut in the previous Office release, using the pane to present users with research sources and to expose more of Words feature set.
Word now enables document creators to control the sorts of changes that users may make to documents and to control which users and changes are allowed. This is useful for keeping large, collaboratively produced documents in check or for documents that must retain certain design elements from version to version.
In tests, we could restrict formatting to a list of approved styles and set a document as read-only, comment-only or open only to forms input. We could also enforce tracked changes. Once we applied restrictions to our document, we could set exceptions for specific users and ranges of the document.
All these settings were accessible through a Protect Document task pane in Word, which we found very easy to use. However, all it takes to bypass these restrictions is opening the protected document in an earlier version of Office, which does not support these controls.
Theres a new layout view in Word for reading documents on the screen. With computer display a fraction of the resolution of paper, theres only so much an application can do to make text more pleasantly readable, but we found this a nice option to have. We could view files with facing pages, as well as text scaled to fit our display. Word hid tool bar options used for editing, but highlighting and review tool bar options remained at hand.
Excel hasnt added too many new features beyond the same sort of task pane benefits we found in Word and the 2003 suites overarching support for XML. But with Excels data-centric focus, the XML support makes for an especially good fit.
Excel now enables users to select from ranges of data to create lists that can be managed and worked on independently of other data on a worksheet.
The lists we created in our test were marked off with a thick blue border, and each column within the list had Excels Autofilter feature enabled by default. We could expand or reduce the area included in our list by dragging the border over the new range of cells we desired.
Powerpoint 2003 adds a cd packager option, with which we could burn a copy of our test presentation along with a new version of Microsofts PowerPoint viewer onto a CD for distribution. This works fine for sending presentations to other Windows users, but, in what seems to be a refrain with Office, it doesnt cut it for cross- platform distribution.
In contrast, StarOffices Impress application can export presentations as PDF documents or as Macromedia Flash files; wed like to see this same functionality built into PowerPoint.
PowerPoint can now play movies embedded in presentations in full-screen mode, and, for Tablet PC users, PowerPoint now supports ink annotations while in slide mode.
Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com
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