Senior research analyst, Info-Tech Research Group

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Despite attractive features such as enhanced collaboration across formats and devices, and a cleaner user interface, the jury is still out on how quickly Microsoft Corp.’s new Office 2007 suite will be adopted.

While analysts agree the product will improve user productivity, they differ on how ready businesses will be to roll out the new offering from Redmond.

Microsoft’s move to convert from a .doc file to an extensible markup language (XML) file format in Office 2007 makes the product a “more collaborative tool” but could present migration problems, according to Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

“You’ll have early adoptors – those without investments in legacy code. But other big companies would have to consider a migration strategy for converting their data to Office 2007’s XML file format.”

Joel Martin, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto sees otherwise.

“This is a slam dunk for Microsoft. Migration to XML is not going to be a show stopper,” he said.

Both analysts agree that the most visible change in Office 2007 is the brand new UI feature dubbed the “ribbon.”

The toolbar user interface has been the same since the first Office product “but over the years it has become a patchwork of glued on pallets, menus and panes,” said Antoine Leblond, vice-president of Office Program Management at Microsoft.

“In the older version, a lot of the functionality users were looking for was already in the system. Users just couldn’t find it or had to do 40 clicks to reach the buried function,” said Leblond.

He said Microsoft picked out features users frequently search for in the largely text-driven toolbar and placed them on a graphical ribbon on top of the screen.There are people who say Office ’97 is good enough for them. What Microsoft needs is to turn around a large segment of enterprise. This is not going to be a quick change over.Carmi Levy>Text

Also available with Office Professional Plus 2007 is a server-enabled capability that allows users to execute document routing and approval, create electronic forms, pass them around and publish spreadsheets more easily, said Leblond.

The new product also includes the 2007 versions of Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Access, InfoPath and Publisher, and the new enterprise-ready instant messaging software Office Communicator.

Leblond demoed how objects such as pie charts and graphs can be rendered from flat images to three-dimensional items – at “near photographic” quality – using a variety of shading and palette tools readily available from the ribbon.

“Businesses used to outsource PowerPoint presentations to get this quality,” said Leblond. “Now they can do it in-house and save time and money,”

Levy and Martin particularly like the interface with other products such as Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint.

Compared with alternatives such as Corel X3, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice and OpenOffice, Martin said Office 2007 is “way ahead.”

“Ten years ago the basic Word document was 8.5 x 11 inches. You didn’t post it on a Web page, send it out over the Internet or use it in a presentation. Office 2007 makes it easier for users to improve a document’s appearance to fit a variety of media right at their desk,” said Levy.

Martin agrees, and says these upgrades are compelling because they save users time and improve their productivity.

On the server side, Levy said Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 brings together the different features users want in a single server. The product also allows users to build portals, publish content on those and search across servers.

Both analysts agree that Microsoft’s move to change over to an Open XML file format presents users with definite advantages.

“It gives customers better information management capabilities. They can tag the data and present it on different formats and over the Internet with ease,” said Martin.

Levy pointed to other benefits of open standards over closed, proprietary systems. “They enable vendors to develop more value added stuff.” He cautioned, however, that XML is a huge change for anyone planning to migrate to Office 2007.

The Info-Tech Research analyst said clients would have to consider factors such as staff retraining, how the new product could help their business, and the migration of legacy files. Depending on the size of the business, he said, migration could cost a great deal. Companies would need to decide which legacy files need to be converted and which should remain as they are.

One large Microsoft customer said they would not immediately implement Office 2007. “We’ll probably wait a year after the release and see how other people use it,” said Catherine Boivie, chief information officer at Pacific Blue Cross, the Burnaby, B.C.-based provider of health and dental care benefits. “Changing over is usually costly and we have to [figure out] our return of investment.”

George Gorsline, director of new opportunities at Toronto-based electronic direct payment organization Interac Association, is of the same view. “We have to keep this delicate balance between staying current and being safe. We’ll have to find out if the upgrades present a business benefit. We don’t change just for the sake of changing.”

Levy echoes these sentiments. “There are people who say Office ’97 is good enough for them. What Microsoft needs is to turn around a large segment of the enterprise. This is not going to be easy.”

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