White Noise

Crystal ball gazing

The key question about any Microsoft upgrade is, “But do I need it?” With Office 2003, the choice is between carrying on as before, adequately, or joining a collaborative vision that happens to help Microsoft in its quest to take over the world.
1 January 1970

The key question about any Microsoft upgrade is, “But do I need it?” With Office 2003, the choice is between carrying on as before, adequately, or joining a collaborative vision that happens to help Microsoft in its quest to take over the world.

Everyone knows, but none more so than Microsoft, that Office and Windows won`t be profit machines forever. In one way, this observation hints at the value – to Microsoft at least – of Office 2003`s maturing vision of integration and collaboration. Of more sweeping significance is that this vision for Microsoft permeates all the way through the enterprise and beyond.

Extending the reach of Office to talk to applications from other vendors, positioning it as a familiar front-end for a growing ecosystem of Microsoft business applications (Great Plains, Exapter, Navision, Microsoft CRM), and creating a supply chain with these using BizTalk integration server, may eventually extend Microsoft`s reach beyond office automation into and across business functions and partnerships.

The first clue: if you don`t blink, you`ll notice a charming, albeit tiny, detail about Office that is in itself suggestive of the vendor`s plans to go beyond mere desktop dominance. It`s the ability to manipulate and store handwriting. The fact that handwriting recognition goes beyond the “single sweep” characters familiar from some personal digital assistants by supporting natural writing (surprisingly well, too) will make Microsoft that bit harder to beat now in the mobile space.

Evolution of knowledge

But however telling, handwriting conversion and recognition form but a small fraction of Office 2003. More to the point is that it is evolving into a more collaborative platform. One has to examine the advances since XP and 2000 in order to answer the upgrade question: why switch, beyond the fact that product lifecycles are generally two to three years?

Microsoft SA`s Heather Third, business group manager, talks up the twin ideas of information workers and collaboration. Into the former category Microsoft groups anyone who has some business with electronic data, and the much-vaunted concept of collaboration was already a focal point of Office XP, launched two years ago.

Given the problematic marketing of XP, which by Microsoft`s admission got a little too excited about features and benefits, “some of which people didn`t even know they needed”, Office 2003 focuses on business needs.

Interestingly, the company recognises that people will not simply move because of product improvements in Word, Excel, Outlook or PowerPoint. There simply isn`t much of that, when viewed in isolation. It also knows the cultural and conceptual barriers to using the extensible (collaborative) functionality of applications.

But its psychology is correct.

“If you`re going to use this like you used XP, don`t upgrade,” says David Ives, Microsoft SA solutions manager, unceremoniously. Clearly, Microsoft trusts its own value, or makes a show of believing it, but it is less certain that customers will. According to Third, marketing will focus on training large customers, a mass launch event on 21 October, customer road shows in five cities, a marketing campaign aimed at its distribution channel, and encouraging partners to install Office 2003 themselves. A council of users will feed back into the channel.

Pricing is being kept under wraps, but indications are it will be priced at a similar level to Office XP.

New or improved functionality in Office 2003 centres on XML web services, smart tags and smart documents. This results in features like workspaces and research panes within applications, as well as new technologies in the form of utilities called InfoPath and OneNote.

Combined, these enable quicker document creation, better sharing of documents and applications, improved “Information Rights Management” or version control, and better overall (XML-based) integration with other Office applications and servers, as well as with selected other-vendor applications, like Siebel and SAP.

Third admits that some of the new features are limited only to documents saved in Office 2003 file formats, and to users in a homogeneous Microsoft-only environment.

But Office 2003`s use of XML is pretty standard, says Migal van As, MD of Intervate, a Microsoft channel partner. It is, apparently, easy to take old COM-based Office applications and rewrite them to .Net, the XML features of which make integration across the enterprise and supply chains easy.

To focus only on the above elements would be to under-sell – and under-utilise – Office 2003. As with any new product that introduces unfamiliar concepts, the best approach for many will be to keep an eye on case studies that make extensive use of collaboration.

Its familiarity to current users will probably be of most value to a Microsoft keen to bring its growing bevy of mid-market business applications together under one banner. It is extending its reach into new revenue areas, such as the home, the mobile space, and the midmarket, and Office 2003 contains pointers to its intentions in at least two of those: tie everything together using Microsoft software.

And when your supply chain management, CRM, business intelligence, ERP applications, integration servers, portals and productivity tools are all linked, across business processes and devices, and it all runs with Office-like collaboration embedded, how important is it really that your XML be industry-standard?