Office 2003: Forget Word and Excel, it's now about collaboration

I was at the Millennium Hotel's Hudson Theater in New York on Oct. 21,

attending the launch event for Microsoft Office 2003. Unlike the Windows

XP launch almost exactly two years ago to the day, and on the very same

stage, this event was less flash and more "get down to business"

oriented. Indeed, on this day, Microsoft launched more products than on

any other single day in its storied history.

Rather than trot out the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Regis Philbin, as

was done for the Windows XP launch less than two months after 9-11, this

event consisted mainly of Bill Gates doing much of the demonstrating

himself.

Office has undergone a complete transformation. Core products (they're

now referred to as modules) Word, Excel, and PowerPoint mentioned only

in passing. No demos, no discussion of new features. They all read and

write industry-standard clean XML, not the garbage XML that heretofore

made sense only to other products from Microsoft.

The big players at this event were the totally redesigned Outlook,

industrial-strength FrontPage, new applications, er, modules called

OneNote and InfoPath, and the server products, Exchange Server and

SharePoint services.

Suffice it to say that the power of these offerings is unleashed only

when software running on existing servers is upgraded to these new

versions.

The Microsoft Office System, as it's now called, consists of the 2003

versions of the core Office suites and programs; updates to other

information work programs such as Visio, FrontPage, Publisher and

Project; two completely new products, OneNote and InfoPath; and four

servers, including the new Office Live Communications Server 2003 and

Exchange Server 2003.

I've been using these products since February, so I'm quite familiar

with them. So what's worth knowing about? Here's a random top ten list.

-- Outlook is far more powerful, fits 40 percent more in the same amount

of screen space, is much smarter about sorting, displaying, and

categorizing mail. Outlook alone is worth the price of an upgrade.

Outlook 2003 is a monumental upgrade, a complete rethinking of the way

mail and calendaring works.

-- Exchange Server supports the new Outlook Web Access feature, allowing

remote employees to access their mail through a browser, without the

need for an expensive and finicky VPN. Outlook Web Access looks and

works nearly identically to the actual Outlook client program.

-- OneNote is the product most people dismiss - until they use it for

awhile. Simply put, it's a note-taking program, an electronic shoebox

into which you can type or write (on a tablet PC) random thoughts. It's

power is how those can be easily organized, linked, and searched. Users

can be as organized or as haphazard as they like when taking notes. Want

to organize information in separate categories? Create several sections

and folders, each with its own purpose. Have a more freeform style?

OneNote has features that make it easy for you to find notes regardless

of how they are organized. Text, drawings, audio clips, it's all there.

Send notes as e-mail messages, create Outlook tasks, post to a shared

location with Windows SharePoint Services, it's all there. It's

irresistible.

-- InfoPath is the big gun in Office 2003. It enables the creation of

rich, dynamic forms that teams and organizations can use to gather,

share, display, reuse, and manage information. Based on industry

standard XML and requiring SharePoint Services running on Windows Server

2003, collected information can be integrated with a broad range of

business processes. At last, there is a product powerful and

sophisticated enough to put a dent into the paper forms industry. A

salesperson can enter sales call info into a form, an executive can view

aggregated or queried information, process can be automated with full

digital signature control and validation checking, and a whole lot more.

-- XML. It's not a product, but the technology is everywhere. Whether

it's InfoPath creating or extracting database records, FrontPage working

as a powerful Web report writer, or an Excel user sharing a financial

analysis, the key to this near-universal interchange of information is

XML. Gates and VP Jeff Raikes have been extolling the virtues of

industry-standard open XML for months.

-- FrontPage is no longer a tool for hobbyists. That audience has been

largely abandoned. Instead, FrontPage is now a commercial-level platform

that can be used to generate and display up-to-the-second reports. The

display of variable amounts of repetitive data, from a simple corporate

phone book to complex inventory or sales performance reports, is handled

automatically. There's a lot more finesse and control and the generated

code is fully industry standard. For departmental reports, where a

product such as Visual Studio is overkill, this brand new FrontPage is

plenty powerful.

-- The server products are the key for solutions integrators. None of

the data sharing works without the server products. And it's the server

products that generate the serious revenue. Need I say more?

There's a lot to discuss, and we'll do that from time to time in

upcoming installments. For now, suffice it to say that Office 2003 is

unlike anything that has come before.

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