The forthcoming Office 2007 suite marks a major play by Microsoft into enterprise applications.
The suite will incorporate enterprise-class business intelligence, business process management, enterprise application integration and advanced collaboration.
Most Office users would be wise to evaluate Office 2007 beta versions now because of the time it will take to plan and carry out a migration. However, analysts have warned that true interoperability may remain problematic unless the business deploys a complete Microsoft application stack.
Clive Longbottom, service director at analyst firm Quocirca, said many organisations would find it worthwhile to upgrade their Microsoft software across the board.
"There are a lot of changes coming through from Microsoft - Windows Server, Windows Desktop, Exchange, Live Communication Server, Sharepoint, SQL Server, Office - the list goes on. At some stage, the total offering makes sense. And if you are doing an infrastructure or total desktop upgrade, it makes sense to roll out Office at the same time," Longbottom said.
One major feature of Office 2007 is that it allows its component applications, such as Excel and Outlook, to be integrated into enterprise applications such as SAP.
This means that users may not have to run specialised applications to perform these integration tasks, and that they can expose third-party business processes through the familiar Office interface.
"For example, Excel and Access now come with pretty decent reporting tools. By making Excel the front-end to an enterprise system, your total workforce can report on what is happening, and so make better-informed decisions. The cost of doing this through implementing Crystal Reports, SAS or whatever, is prohibitive," Longbottom said.
Microsoft's application integration strategy comes under the banner of Office Business Application services. This is designed to create technologies to support new enterprise functions such as workflow, enterprise search, XML file formats, better security, and a new extensible user interface.
Office Business Application allows Office client and server products - as well as products from independent software providers - to support business intelligence, communications and collaboration, and enterprise content management for enterprises, said AMR research director Jim Murphy.
As part of the Office Business Application initiative, Microsoft and SAP have produced their Duet (formerly Mendocino) products. Duet allows Office users to access vertical SAP processes from within Outlook and other applications.
Also part of the Office Business Application strategy is line-of-business interoperability for Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server. This allows Office to cover additional enterprise software areas, and is a separate initiative from Duet.
"Duet is an early example of the type of capability line-of-business interoperability intends to offer, only just for SAP. At this point, it is hard to tell how line-of-business interoperability will be packaged and sold, but Microsoft promises a technical preview by the end of 2006," said Murphy.
Line-of-business interoperability enables better collaboration and communications, and manages documents, web content, records and forms.
It also allows Office to carry out navigation, search and retrieval, and furnish more mature business intelligence, including report and analysis publishing, and eventually interactive analysis.
Line-of-business interoperability also opens the door to business process management - termed "workflow" by Microsoft - using a combination of Microsoft technologies such as Biztalk, Exchange/Outlook, Visual Studio, and the new Windows Workflow Foundation.
"Microsoft is clarifying Office's intended role as a platform for building and extending business applications, largely using Office's near-ubiquity to make vital business processes more relevant and accessible to more people," Murphy said.
However, he warned, "Although the entire Office 2007 suite may seem like the Swiss Army knife of the enterprise IT world, do not mistake it for Switzerland - it is not neutral in the sense of completely open integration with other enterprise suppliers.
"While better XML support and other factors make it more open than ever before, the easiest integration, the slickest features and arguably the highest level of value will come to those who adopt the whole Microsoft stack, including Office 2007 and Vista.
"Let's not mistake the motivations: Microsoft wants you to upgrade, and quickly."
So what are the considerations for IT managers preparing to upgrade to Office 2007?
Dale Vile, research director at analyst firm Freeform Dynamics, said, "What Office 2007 brings may not be attractive to everyone, but there is a lot of potential business value in there. The only way you can make a judgment, and test the business case for early migration, is if you understand what is on offer and how it might fit with the way your business and end-user expectations are evolving.
Once the IT director has determined which Office 2007 features and functionality are relevant to the business, they must then understand the upgrades or new components required to enable them, particularly on the server side. "Only then can you put together a robust migration plan that is properly aligned with business objectives," said Vile.
"You should revisit all of those grand plans you had for that enterprise portal project a few years ago that was never quite delivered, and look at applications that were destined to be embedded in that. The fact is that the centre of most people's desktop is Microsoft Office, not their web browser, so surfacing applications in Office fits much more naturally with user behaviour."
With so much going on, Office 2007 is not simply another upgrade. IT directors need to assess what features of Office they would like to deploy and how those features integrate into the company's existing IT.
Darren Strange, senior product manager for the Microsoft Office 2007 system, said companies should prepare for Office 2007 now by testing the beta code which became available at the end of May.
"If you look at the cycles of how long it takes to plan and implement, it can take more than a year, so it is wise to start now," he said.
Strange said organisations would typically spend two to three months evaluating the business case for features such as enterprise content management, business intelligence, communications and collaboration, and new aspects of enterprise project management.
Next is an initial planning phase of a couple of months, centred on how to deploy the technology.
Then comes four to six months of testing the applications. Depending on the level of the infrastructure, this could stretch to a further six months, Strange said.
He added that some new features would also require a cultural change - for example, in moving from Outlook e-mail to Teamsite and Sharepoint Portal-based collaboration.
Strange said Microsoft had been working hard to prepare migration tools and documents to help IT managers with their Office upgrades. "Typically in the past, some of the deployment tools have come out afterwards, but this time we have been very careful to release these alongside the beta," he said.
Some of the new programs help users deploy Office. "We have changed the file format for Office documents, and have provided tools to think about the issues around that, though not necessarily to migrate all your documents to the new file format, though it is smaller, more secure, and all XML," Strange said.
For example, an Office Migration Planning Manager executable surveys the Microsoft documents on an organisation's desktops and reports to a central server, using colour-coding to highlight particular issues. IT managers can use the results of that survey to run the File Conversion tool.
Another tool is Local Installation Source, which uses the Windows Background Intelligent Transfer Service to "drizzle" code onto desktops over a network over a long period - possibly months.
A gradual roll-out enables the IT department to prepare desktops for the upgrade by delivering new Office applications and features incrementally before going live en masse. "At a certain moment, Office components can be invoked to install. Administrators have a lot more control over when the upgrade takes place," said Strange.
Although Microsoft has made efforts to ease the process of upgrading to Office 2007, IT user group the Corporate IT Forum said few of its member organisations plan to make the move to Vista, and by inference Office 2007, as quickly as Microsoft would like.
It said, "Many organisations are only now migrating fully to Windows XP. As far as most of those with large PC estates are concerned, the technology needs to be established, stable and probably have at least the first service pack available and deployable.
"We expect that during 2007 organisations will observe this technology closely and have pilot implementations under evaluation. We would be surprised if many large organisations were migrating before 2009."
The move to Office 2007 is far more than a point release upgrade; it is a move to a whole new business applications platform. With this in mind, each organisation must decide for itself whether it needs the new features, and whether it is willing to change its business, IT and cultural practices to adopt the platform.
What's new in Microsoft Office 2007?
Office Business Application services
These technologies enable workflow, collaboration, enterprise navigation, search and retrieval, XML file formats, security, and a new extensible user interface.
Office Business Application services are central to Microsoft’s line-of-business interoperability initiative, which allows users to extend SAP and other enterprise software systems.
Office Business Application services enable Office client and server products, along with third-party applications, to provide business intelligence, communications and collaboration, and enterprise content management.
Initiatives such as Duet
Formerly called Mendocino, these packaged applications allow SAP processes to be accessed via Microsoft Office 2007.
Business process management
This can be achieved through Biztalk, Exchange/Outlook, Visual Studio, and Windows Workflow Foundation.
The traditional menus and toolbars have been replaced by the Ribbon –a new device that presents commands organised into a set of tabs. The tabs on the Ribbon display the commands that are most relevant for each of the task areas in Word, Powerpoint, Excel, or Access.
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