What is it?
Microsoft Office is the most widely used suite of desktop applications. You need it to read and share documents with colleagues and business partners, even if you would rather not use it. Yet it is not unassailable. With Staroffice already here, and Linux desktops imminent, there is the prospect of some attractive, cheap and lightweight alternatives.
Microsoft's licensing is unpopular and complaints of feature overload have spilled over into resentment about the constant pressure to upgrade. IT directors' group the Corporate IT Forum has queried whether there have been enough breakthroughs in word processing to justify major releases.
Microsoft's response has been to add XML capability and create Office System, a workgroup collaboration product that combines Office applications with Exchange Server and the Sharepoint Portal Server.
Where did it originate?
Office brought together Microsoft's productivity tools, including Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and the Access database. Some of these tools were developed in the early 1980s for pre-Windows, standalone PCs.
What is it for?
Analyst company Gartner has pointed out that although Microsoft is good at providing tools for creating and accessing content, it falls short in organising content to be used and re-used.
"Unstructured content and new applications have grown out of control. Users cannot find the content they want when they need it," Gartner said.
Office System is a first stab at a product like Lotus Notes, which will enable users to manage and share documents and co-ordinate work activities via a web portal.
What makes it special?
Office System includes Live Communications Server, an enterprise-scale instant messaging/presence tool which can be used from within Office applications. There is XML support in Access, Word and Excel, which could enable the programs to function as front-ends to other XML-enabled products. Users would be able to work with the interface they are most familiar with to gain access to other sources of data. Currently, however, the XML architecture is Microsoft-centric.
How difficult is it to master?
In the past few releases, the components of the Office suite have been made to look more like one another, which makes life easier for end-users.
Developers who want to work with Office System will need an understanding of the Office applications and a basic understanding of XML and web services. Getting a detailed knowledge of the whole Office System suite could be time-consuming and expensive: learning to configure portals with Sharepoint involves a five-day course.
What systems does it run on?
Microsoft operating systems. Support for Office 97 ended in January.
Where is it used?
Office and the more established elements of the Office System can be found almost everywhere, from the largest corporation to the smallest charity.
What is coming up?
Gartner has recommended that businesses think twice before upgrading either to Office 2003 or the Office System. The next major upgrade of Office is expected with the Longhorn operating system.
Developer training is available from Microsoft and its authorised training partners.
Rates of pay
Office support roles are widely available, with salaries ranging from the mid-teens to £25,000. End-user trainers can look for £18,000 to £25,000; analysts, administrators and project staff command between £25,000 and £40,000-plus for senior roles.
Developers with Access and/or Excel plus SQL are much in demand, but Sharepoint experience gets the greatest rewards.