Microsoft Corp. on Tuesday will release Office System 2003, the upgrade to its Office XP suite of desktop productivity applications. Given that the Redmond, Wash., software titan is unlikely to release the next version of its Windows client, code-named Longhorn, for another three years, the pressure is on to drive sales of Office. Kurt DelBene, corporate vice president for the Office Server Group, took time before Office System 2003s global release in New York to discuss the product with eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli.
eWEEK: What benefits are enterprise customers going to see in Microsoft Office System 2003?
DelBene: This product is a change in stride for Office as we have moved from individual productivity to thinking about team productivity and how we will use the client and servers together to deliver on key scenarios around collaboration and communications. Those things have been getting people energized about this release. While there is a lot of infrastructure out there for collaboration, a lot of this is disconnected from portals or each other and are not blocked together to create a cohesive environment in the organization. So a lot of what weve done with this release is to create servers and services that are companions to the desktop so people can use tools like Office on the desktop and connect to collaboration servers. Weve focused on best-of-breed collaboration, spaces, online meetings and very deep integration into the client around core scenarios key to users like working together on a document.
We also thought there was an opportunity to integrate XML into the Office products in an intelligent way to create structured documents and to allow Word to submit and fetch data directly from back-end systems. The huge expenses to enterprises of sending staff to meetings was another area we addressed and have a shipping product called Live Communication Server, which does instant messaging and presence, as well as Live Meeting Service, which allows people to hold live meetings across different geographies.
eWEEK: Many customers running legacy versions of Office are concerned about the costs associated with training their staff on this new version. How have you tried to help them with this?
DelBene: We address this in several ways. We try not to make radical changes to the user interface so if there are ways to integrate the new functionality in a seamless way, we do that. With the introduction of XML, which is pretty complex, we were determined not to change the Word user experience, so we had to allow IT departments to create the structured documents in template form that could be delivered to users along with a frame on the lefthand side that guides them through the authoring of the document. Also, when we do have to change stuff, we try and make it fairly intuitive. Take Outlook 2003, which looks the same but has a number of changes that are intuitive rather than radical. Were also introducing online training around the new features for users.
eWEEK: In their reviews of the product, many of the trade publications—including eWEEK—found that the new functionality and capabilities in Office 2003 are probably only essential for a small number of users and have thus recommended that most users do not upgrade. What are your thoughts on those reviews?
DelBene: This is among the most compelling Office releases among the many that I have worked on from our customers point of view. There are many reasons for them to upgrade, including the new functionality and performance of Outlook. Also, the issue of having both clients and servers working together is resonating with customers, and SharePoint is going to help drive a lot of Office sales. The InfoPath process automation piece is also drawing a lot of interest. We are getting a lot of positive feedback from customers across the board.
eWEEK: How concerned are you about the open-source alternatives like StarOffice and Openoffice, which cost far less?
DelBene: We take them quite seriously. We look at the functionality they have, we talk with customers about these alternatives, but we feel pretty comfortable that we are staying one [step] beyond them, not just in terms of the core functionality that each of the products can provide but also solving new scenarios with clients and servers that work together. We also try to educate customers on what the true cost of the open-source alternative may be. It may be inexpensive or no cost upfront, but the cost of support tends to put Office in our favor.
eWEEK: There has been some criticism about Microsofts strategy of linking the clients and servers and the fact that new products are optimized to work best with other current products. Not every company has the funds or is willing to upgrade all their products every time a new release comes out. How do you handle that issue?
DelBene: There is a lot of functionality that does not depend on or need our server products. Some of the offline Outlook functionality works regardless of whether you have the new server or not, so that is compelling even before users upgrade to the next version of Exchange. OneNote doesnt require a server; things like reading mode in Word and all of the XML functionality dont depend on a particular server, but rather that you have some server out there that you can do projects with XML on. So its not just Microsoft or Office servers that you have to connect to. Many people will also upgrade the server before the client.
eWEEK: There is a perception among many small and medium-sized businesses that their needs are increasingly being overlooked as Office increasingly appears to be an enterprise solution. Is that perception valid?
DelBene: I dont think thats a fair characterization although I can understand how it developed. Certainly in the past we may have given that impression. We have until now had offerings targeted at certain price points, and we are now defining a character for these small businesses and a suite that is actually tailored toward them. So, whereas in the past our suites were more around packing what we had in different ways, were more focused now on what additional products small businesses would need. So I think youll see tighter couplings between our SMB server, client and Office offerings.
eWEEK: So, now that Office System 2003 is almost out the door, what are the compelling scenarios the team is thinking about and has identified for the next version of Office?
DelBene: Its hard to say given that were this far out. But we have a lot of leeway on the scenarios we are dealing with today. Take the whole notion of the holistic environment we are creating for knowledge workers, where we want to get to the point where a user can go to a single place and find all the information they need. This will help with things like problem solving and allow analysis based on the data that is made available.
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