The launch of the Office 2003 desktop productivity suite marks Microsoft's latest attempt to get companies to embrace its XML-based vision of web services supported by its .net infrastructure. But whether businesses buy into Microsoft's vision will depend on them overcoming some hurdles, writes Karl Cushing.
Microsoft makes use of internet data language XML in Office 2003, formerly Office 11, to help companies integrate applications from a variety of suppliers. Microsoft also aims to boost collaboration and support future forays into web services.
A key problem for many organisations is that they must be running Windows Server 2003 before they can roll out Office 2003, while other features of the productivity suite will require Active Directory, Exchange and Sharepoint Services. However, Microsoft said Windows 2000 users who want to adopt Office 2003 can avoid upgrading to Windows XP by implementing service pack three - available on the Microsoft website - with no loss of functionality.
In addition to these infrastructure requirements, experts doubt the value of the new features Microsoft is touting. Tony Lock, chief analyst at Bloor Research, said that for most UK organisations XML is not a priority and they do not yet need the level of functionality found in Office 2003. A beta 2 version of Office 2003 will be released later this month, with the main release planned for the summer.
Mike Thompson, principal research analyst at Butler Group, said that although the latest Office release marks "a huge advance" on previous releases, the added functionality and XML will not be enough to persuade large numbers of users to upgrade to Office 2003.
However, IT managers should be looking closely at XML as it can help address some key pain points such as interoperability, said Thompson. "They might not know they need it but they do," he said.
Interoperability is key to Microsoft's vision of Office 2003 as a central hub for front-end applications that link into back-end systems using XML. While Microsoft hopes companies will use its own applications, its lack of large enterprise software means Office needs to tie in and share data with multi-supplier systems and functions such as enterprise resource planning, payroll and human resources.
"XML is not a no-pain solution but it is a reduced-pain solution. While it won't solve your integration problems, it will solve your interoperability problems," said Thompson.
For many companies a move to Office 2003 would require a major overhaul of their IT infrastructure. Implementing Active Directory - which is needed to underpin some elements of Office 2003, such as information rights management - is complex, said Lock.
Companies also need to implement Exchange Server to wring the maximum benefit out of Outlook; and Windows Sharepoint Services to support the collaborative functionality. They may even have to update their database to one that supports XML, such as Oracle 9i.
A migration to Office 2003 would require a great deal of staff training. End-user training would be critical to avoid placing strain on the IT helpdesk and avoid the problem of unproductive staff, said Lock.
On top of the additional functionality come two new applications, an information gathering tool, Infopath, that allows users and applications to exchange XML-based files and a note taking tool, Onenote. The widespread use of instant messaging in Office 2003, in line with Microsoft's drive to support collaboration, also brings with it its own raft of security implications.
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What's new in Office 2003?
Onenote - Enables Tablet PC users to type, write text and doodle on the screen and run searches on handwritten text.
InfoPath - An information-gathering tool designed to enable users to create and exchange documents and forms.
Business contact manager - An Outlook add-on that enables small firms to communicate with and keep track of customers.
Collaboration - Collaboration is key to Office 2003, with suite-wide instant messaging and shared workspaces.