You have nothing to fear from Office 2003 SP1

It feels like Jaws. You’ve downloaded another marquee service pack from somewhere deep in Washington state. You wiped the sweat off your brow, calmed your breathing, and — with a trembling index finger — hit the Install button. That installation progression bar is sliding across the screen like the slowly extending finger of destiny sealing your fate. Oh yeah, and the Jaws music is playing in the background.

Sometimes this procedure goes off without a hitch. Other times, your system eats the service pack and then, with a shark’s mindless determination, goes on to eat several other important software packages at random. Fortunately, the latter is not so much of a worry with the Office 2003 Service Pack 1 release.

Back in production network land, we’ve installed this sucker on about 300 desktops now with about 40 very different configurations. No trouble, no error messages, no floating body parts in crimson-colored surf. You don’t even have to have the original Office discs handy to deploy the pack, which makes us auto-deploy dogs really wag our tails.

Unfortunately, when installed, there wasn’t a lot of difference from the user’s perspective. From the lazy IT administrator’s perspective, we like Office 2003 SP1 both for its swanky name as well as its roll-up security features plugging up yet another round of holes in Excel, Word, and Outlook. Anything that cuts down on security-related mayhem without causing software incompatibilities is a very good thing.

A word to the wise, however: SP1 isn’t one, it’s actually five. The single and easily located 18MB SP1 downloadable covers only the core Office 2003 programs, namely Access, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, and their shared programs. If you’ve got users clicking away with other Office applications, you must download separate SP1 updates for OneNote, Project, Project Server, and Visio.

Some of my wanna-be-geek users went to Microsoft Corp.’s site and began reading up on the feature enhancements in SP1. Primarily, this revolves around Outlook and OneNote. Only two users in our entire client stable — InfoWorld contributing editor Brain Chee at Advanced Network Computing Laboratory (ANCL) at the University of Hawaii, and every Microsoft PR person — use OneNote, so feature enhancements there really don’t impact my life all that much. Outlook 2003 is another story, however.

According to Redmond, SP1 beefs up Outlook 2003’s e-mail filtering capabilities. The new features include the ability to block messages based on language encoding and country domain. It’s there and it seems to work, but it’s not intelligent; it’s just a list of checkboxes allowing you to block messages based on either of those criteria country by country. I immediately blocked Nigeria and some other spam-only places, and so far, no more spam has come from those areas. But legit mail is still a possibility from countries like Taiwan, Indonesia, and even chunks of the new Europe, so blocking those quarters is out of the question.

It’s certainly a step up from Outlook 2003’s initial junk e-mail filter, but it’s an iterative upgrade, not a revolutionary new anti-spam capability. Our other server-based anti-spam engines are in no danger of being placed out of work.

And before I get swamped with complaints that I’ve ignored OneNote, its improvements are also noticeable according to those customers using it. Integration is markedly better with the rest of Office 2003, now allowing folks to insert entire Office documents into OneNote in “static” mode. This could turn it into a giant meeting blog-style document. Yea. And while you’re scrolling through all that, not only can you listen to the talk at the meeting, you can see it because just like the audio insertion in the first release, the SP1 update now lets you stuff video into a OneNote doc and even annotate the clip with handwriting or text.

Now, I’m pooh-poohing that stuff because I never use it, but I’ve got a couple of tablet-using property managers to whom that ability is truly useful. To each his or her own. Bottom line: Office 2003 SP1 provides security and features benefits without any discernable harm in a couple of weeks’ worth of production testing. Go forth and download.

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