Microsoft provides peek at Office 2003

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday offered a glimpse of its upcoming Office 2003 suites, however one industry analyst said the value of these bundles is not in the suites themselves but is realized when used in tandem with other Microsoft apps.

Pending release in mid-summer 2003, Microsoft will be providing users with six different suite options including the never-before-seen Professional Enterprise Edition and Basic Edition.

As with the release of Office XP, Microsoft will also be offering a Professional Edition, a Small Business Edition, a Standard Edition, and a Student and Teacher Edition.

Although the individual applications that comprise Office have gone through a minor revamp – and some new applications are being introduced – Rob Helm, Director of Research at Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm that focuses exclusively on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., said the suites are only really valuable when used in conjunction with other Microsoft applications, such as its SharePoint Services.

This strategy is part of a new brand Microsoft calls its Office System, Helm explained, adding that Microsoft is now focusing more on the System and less on the suite.

“You can’t buy it – there’s not an Office System box you can get. But what Microsoft is trying to say with this brand is that the Office Suite is pretty mature and, there’s not a lot more that people can do to it,” Helm said.

Scott Jackson, product manager for Office at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont. confirmed Helm’s comments that Microsoft’s focus in now the System and not the suite, adding that one of Microsoft’s goals in this release was to provide more functionality to enterprise users.

Out of this came the new Professional Enterprise Edition of Office 2003, which is similar to the Professional Edition of Office XP but with three new faces – Microsoft Publisher and two new apps called BizContact Manager and InfoPath. The Professional Edition of Office 2003 has also been given Publisher and BizContact Manger, but not InfoPath. The Small Business Edition includes Publisher and BizContact Manager but lacks Access.

Helm described the new Biz Contact Manager as a “baby customer relationship management system that would be attractive to organizations that either don’t have a system or aren’t candidates for such a system because it’s just too complicated.”

Jackson said it is a more flexible way for users to keep a track of their contacts, and includes features such as tracking. This means users can track correspondence with their contacts. However, its benefits are only fully leveraged when used with the new version of Microsoft Outlook. Jackson says this has been revamped with new functions including one where users can flag e-mail messages with seven different-coloured priority flags indicating their importance. In addition, Outlook’s graphical user interface (GUI) has also been altered.

The other new application, InfoPath, is an information-gathering tool that allows users to develop form-like documents based on extensible markup language (XML). Helm said InfoPath is not useable out of the box, but is essentially a tool for XML developers to create applications such as forms that can keep both numerical and textual data.

As an example, Helm chose something close to home. He said he could imagine an InfoPath application being developed at Directions on Microsoft that would allow information to be gleaned from analysts and prepared to go up on Directions’ Web site. However, the Web site would need to be XML-based.

“It would be much easier to do it on InfoPath than it would be to build it from scratch,” he explained. “It’s not something out of the box, it’s something that requires some assembly or customization.”

A new note-taking application called OneNote will be released at the same time, but it will sell as a standalone product for now, Microsoft’s Jackson said.

Other additions to the Office Professional Editions include enhanced support for integrating XML for back-end systems.

“What Word, Excel and Access have all gained in this release is the ability to read and write XML data in custom formats,” Helm explained. “In the last release Excel and Access could spew out XML, but it was Excel-XML or Access-XML. Whereas this time you could in principle you could take an insurance claim form in an insurance industry-specific XML standard and put it into Excel, do some calculations and spit out a new claim form with some calculations done.”

The Professional Enterprise Edition will only available through volume licensing and academic volume licensing, while the Professional Edition of Office 2003 will be available through retail channels, OEMs and academic channels. The Small Business Edition will be available through retails, OEMs, and volume licensing.

Microsoft’s Standard Edition and the Student and Teacher Edition both comprise the same apps -Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. However the Standard Edition is available through retail and volume licensing channels, while the Student and Teacher Edition is available through retail and academic channels. In addition, buyers of the Student and Teacher Edition would be licensed to install on up to three PCs.

Microsoft’s new Basic Edition of Office 2003 includes only Word, Excel and Outlook – it will be available only through OEMs on new PCs.

“Basic Edition seems targeted at the low-end of the market where Corel has got a little bit of traction with PC manufacturers competing against [Microsoft] Works,” Helm said.

To run Office 2003, Jackson said users need Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 or higher, and no pricing information is yet available.

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