Microsoft moves towards collaborative computing, but should you upgrade?

We assess the merits of the latest version of Microsoft's productivity suite.

We assess the merits of the latest version of Microsoft's productivity suite.

Microsoft has taken the first step towards making its desktop software products the building blocks for applications to share data across companies.

Microsoft has on its roadmap to deliver collaborative computing with today's launch of Office 2003 and Exchange 2003.

In a departure for Microsoft, the new version of Office 2003 provides more than just word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation software. It is also a development platform for building collaborative applications, such as portals and for document sharing.

"By including the Microsoft .net framework and utilising XML throughout the product, we are providing a development framework to address collaborative computing," said Microsoft Office group marketing manager Neil Laver.

Key features of the 2003 suite include Sharepoint, the Microsoft portal server, and Infopath, an electronic forms engine. Another new feature in Outlook 2003 and Exchange 2003, called RPC/ HTTP, will allow users who connect to Exchange remotely to access e-mail via their Outlook client, without needing to deploy a virtual private network.

But Microsoft may find users reluctant to accept its vision. "Office has always been considered peripheral to the rest of the enterprise infrastructure," said Ovum analyst Neil Macehiter, implying that desktop software such as Office did not have the same credibility as server-based infrastructure.

Macehiter said one of the main benefits of the new release was support for web services.

With the inclusion of the .net framework (Microsoft's web services technology) within Office 2003 and Visual available as a scripting language within Word, Excel and Outlook, Macehiter said, "Users will be able to build .net-based web services to integrate applications better."

His main concern was that Microsoft offers users different features in different versions of Office 2003. Infopath, the e-forms tool, for instance, is only available in the Professional version. This could cause confusion, he warned.

Previously, Microsoft differentiated the Professional version and Standard edition by excluding applications such as the Access database tool from the more basic standard version of the software.

Analyst firm Forrester said that with Office 2003, Microsoft was also changing features available between the different versions of the product. For instance, Forrester warned that Microsoft has chosen to restrict information rights management and customer-defined XML schema support to the Professional editions only.

Should you upgrade?

Upgrading to Office 2003 is a good move for customers using Office 97, which is no longer supported by Microsoft, said Meta Group analyst Ashim Pal. He advised users of this product to upgrade as soon as possible. "Although users of Office 97 may not see much improvement in functionality by upgrading to Office 2003, security is far better," he said.

However, for companies running Office 2000 there is no compelling reason to upgrade to Office 2003.

"Upgrading from Office 2000 would not be advisable unless you were planning to embark on a desktop platform refresh that included the latest Microsoft software - Office 2003 and Windows XP," said Pal.

Pal said he could see no economic argument for moving users of Office XP onto the 2003 edition, unless the business wanted to take advantage of features such as Infopath or support for XML.

Pal was also cautious about advising users to upgrade to Exchange 2003.

With standard support for Exchange 5.5 ending in December, Pal recommended upgrading to Exchange 2003 in order to remain on a support contract. But the only benefit users of Exchange 2000 would see from an upgrade would arise from improvements in terms of server consolidation promised in the new release said Pal.

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