Office XP Has a Lot to Like

But Microsoft suite is only a must upgrade for sites that need collaboration and customization

Microsoft Corp. is billing Office XP as the most significant version of Office ever released. In eWeek Labs tests of the Corporate Preview version of Office XP, we found the suites usability, management and collaboration gains are indeed great enough to solidify Microsofts grip on the productivity software market and will tempt some companies to upgrade when the suite ships this summer.

However, Microsofts Office 97 and Office 2000 suites are strong products that adequately handle the needs of most business users. Although Office XP offers a number of interface niceties that users will appreciate, companies looking to justify the cost of an upgrade to Office XP will need to take advantage of the suites new collaboration and customization features, such as SharePoint Team Services and extensible Smart Tags.

The Office XP Corporate Preview, which can be used through the end of August, is available through Microsofts Web site for $20. Companies interested in Office XP can get their hands on the software early to evaluate the benefits they would derive from an upgrade. Prices for the final version of Office XP are not yet available.

SharePoint Team Services is a Web collaboration application that ships with Office XP and provides some of the discussion, document-sharing and team-management functions found in eRoom Technology Inc.s eRoom 5.0 and Inovie Software Inc.s Team Center 4.0.3.

We were able to upload or create documents to be saved on a test SharePoint site, and the process is integrated tightly with Word.

We could edit the test site in FrontPage, which is also closely integrated with SharePoint. SharePoint can be hosted by an Internet service provider or internally on a Windows 2000 server with Internet Information Server.

Across Office XP appear Smart Tags, icons that users can click on to access features appropriate to the current operation.

The true potential of Smart Tags, however, lies in their extensibility. Companies can create their own Smart Tags that, for example, recognize particular pieces of information and allow users to carry out database or Web look-ups from the document theyre working on. Microsoft offers a Smart Tag Software Development Kit that makes it relatively easy to create tags.

Microsoft has integrated speech recognition and speech navigation functions across Office. We found the level of recognition generally unimpressive but roughly in line with other speech recognition products weve seen.

In addition to speech, Office XP includes options for on-screen keyboard input, as well as a handwriting recognition feature that impressed us with its ability to decode on-screen scrawlings but will require a handwriting pad peripheral to be useful.