Cornering the office

Cornering the office

When Microsoft Office 11 ships in 2003, it will mark the fifth release in eight years of the industry leader in desktop application suites. Even Bill Ford doesn’t expect you to buy a new car every other year. But it’s no wonder that upgrade fatigue is a concern of CTOs and IT managers, given the additional expenses involved in retraining users and refitting desktops with new software.

To be honest, when we learned Microsoft would make a beta of Office 11 available for review, we were skeptical about the upgrade’s quality. After all, what else could be bolted onto Word, Excel, and the other Office applications? Even experienced users rarely use the full palette of features already present. It’s even arguable that the only real improvements in the releases since Office 97 have been the decreasing number of catastrophic bugs between 97, 2000, and XP.

But that would be cynical of us. We actually found that although Office 11 Beta 1 contains the usual assortment of prerelease bugs, one or two of the new features do justify an upgrade for a small number of users. Among the enhancements to collaboration features, users of Word-created forms will find it easier to restrict access to selected portions of those documents. For the XML-obsessed, the Office 11 applications will provide easier ways to convert Office file formats into XML and vice versa.

The new release of Office will prod sales of Windows XP, because Office 11 won’t run on legacy Win9x/Millenium platforms, or even on Windows NT. It’s Windows 2000 or Windows XP, or no upgrade for you. Not that this is entirely a bad thing, given our disdain for the 9x family and its obsolete, security-heedless architecture. But this underscores Microsoft’s overwhelming dominance of the desktop and its ability to pressure customers into paying for endless upgrades by one means or another.

Installing the beta on our Windows 2000 and XP desktops went smoothly until the first run of the suite failed while looking for files from the installation CD. This turned out to be a known bug. We hit another known bug later when Outlook 11 couldn’t distinguish between two similar names in our Active Directory environment and consistently forced us to the wrong Exchange mailbox. But in our book, two ugly bugs found while installing beta software does not a bad score make.

Office 11’s new look was apparent from the get-go, as it features a “transparent” theme that could only be inspired by the Aqua interface of Mac OS X. It was mildly shocking to those of us accustomed to gray toolbars, but it grew on us after a while. The usual first-run clutter of help screens greeted us, but overall we were glad to see that no major changes have been made to menus and key assignments. Experienced Office users should be able to jump in and get back to work, assuming they aren’t distracted by the shiny new interface. Between the installed help files and online sources, users exploring the new features should find it easier than ever to get clued in.

The improvements to individual applications, although valuable, don’t really justify the designation of a major upgrade. For example, Excel, PowerPoint, and Word now support ink mark-up using a Windows-based tablet PC. Access and PowerPoint 11 now support SmartTags. PowerPoint’s “Package to CD” feature is a noticeable improvement over earlier attempts, and you can finally access Word’s thesaurus from inside PowerPoint 11. And as we noted, Word now offers more control over document entry, making it a better form-filler than ever.

But the enhanced XML support in the Office 11 Beta applications qualifies the suite as a major upgrade. Word 11 supports XML as a native file format, while Access 11 and Excel 11 are better consumers of XML data sources; all three offer improved support for user-defined XML.

Outlook 11 finally acknowledges what Notes users have known for years: local replicas of Exchange mailboxes make it easier for workers to move around and make shifting from one network connection to another easier than it is with Notes. Search Folders allows users to create persistent searches that act as virtual folders and are a simpler alternative to using filtering rules to redirect mail from the Inbox to other folders.

Microsoft’s STS (SharePoint Team Services) receives a major overhaul from the client perspective in Office 11, recognising that most of its value has come as a low-end document library. Features such as bulk editing and the Shared Workspace task pane are clearly aimed at building on this level of acceptance. But most of the value of STS won’t be available until Windows .Net Server 2003 ships, in April at the earliest.

Although we don’t expect consumers and end-users to rush to Office 11, due primarily to the requirements, Beta 1 shows us that enterprises using XML to transform their business process will reap the most benefit from its improved support for user-defined schemas and better import and export facilities. Some of the collaboration improvements, including selective document protection, can make a difference now. But the impact of others such as STS must wait to be seen.

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