Office 2003: A must-have upgrade?

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1 April 2005 | 0

If you want to skip straight to the lowdown, then yes, Microsoft Corp.’s Office 2003 is a must-have upgrade for enterprises. In terms of providing features that individual users need, the productivity suite reached the zenith of its evolution with Office 2000. But OfficeProfessional Enterprise Edition 2003 and Professional Edition for retail deliver XML capabilities that are compelling to companies as a whole. Furthermore, Enterprise Edition’s inclusion of InfoPath turns Office into a powerful front end for IT shops rooted in XML (which, if sense prevails, describes all of IT). Office 2003 Enterprise’s XML enhancements alone are worth the upgrade cost.

Office’s XML facilities are not mere tweaks on the uninspiring Save As/Open As options in Office XP. Rather, they are XML done in a way that non-Office users will respect. Excel, Word and the new InfoPath can use XML Schema documents to structure and constrain input, and to ensure that output conforms to the expectations of external applications. For companies that have the in-house expertise to employ it, the Office task pane that usually displays context-sensitive help can be used for guided input, with XML defining the structure of those forms.

Along with XML, InfoPath is, in our estimation, the best new feature to hit Office since real-time spell-checking. InfoPath is an XML editor with a twist: the user never sees the XML or the XML Schema that structures and validates it. Unlike XML features in Word and Excel, which must be set up by one skilled in the XML arts, InfoPath paints forms, validates input, and pumps out squeaky clean, standards-compliant XML without requiring one bit of XML expertise. InfoPath lives up to its billing both in ease of use and the quality of its output.

 

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Office 2003 is, in the main, an excellent piece of work. But two key features are missing. Formatting information, which can be relevant to the interpretation of a document, is either stripped from exported XML documents, or retained in a needlessly complex format. Worst of all is the absence of XML support in Outlook, which continues to use an opaque data store for messages. Through XML, Outlook could interact with non-Microsoft mail clients and servers and, more importantly, it could easily incorporate RSS functionality.

Office 2003 Enterprise is a fantastic desktop suite, easily deserving of its Very Good rating. But Microsoft’s decision to deprive most Office users of integrated XML functionality is, to be blunt, idiotic. As reviewers, we are obliged to evaluate and score the product at hand, and my rating is accurate for the Enterprise Edition we reviewed. But we add this footnote: to be truly useful, XML support must be consistent across all Office editions and not limited to the Professional and Enterprise editions. We fear that thousands of Office 2003 users will be left wondering where all of these thrilling new features are.

OneNote

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any knowledge worker, however broadly defined, is capturing the scribbles that one makes in the course of a day. These often start on sticky notes, scratch pads, cocktail napkins and similarly awkward — and easy to misplace — media. Enterprises face an even greater hurdle when trying to corral the notes of hundreds or thousands of knowledge workers. Often, valuable information must be laboriously retyped, but this is impeded by both sloppy handwriting and an incomplete understanding of the context.

Enter another opportunity for Microsoft Corp. The software behemoth has tried repeatedly to wrap its arms around the nascent world of pen-driven computing, with limited success. Though a number of hardware vendors have embraced the Tablet PC concept that turns a laptop running Windows XP into a device responsive to the pushing of a ‘pen’ and able to manipulate ‘digital ink’, tight IT budgets have resulted in a muted reception from the corporate world. But the introduction of Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 may well be the killer app that justifies an investment in pen computing.

Our experiences with both the beta and final release of OneNote are proof that successful handwriting recognition requires a patient user. Asking a computer to decipher one of our tester’s handwriting is almost an act of cruelty. So it’s no surprise that when OneNote tried to render his scribbling into text, the output was more amusing than accurate.

But the results were better than we expected, coming very close on many phrases, especially if the handwriter paid attention to what he was doing. (Since handwriting recognition is a function of the Tablet PC’s Windows XP operating system, it’s unfair to rate OneNote on that aspect.) OneNote documents are stored in ‘notebooks’ that contain one or more pages that can be manipulated as easily as those in a binder. Notebooks can hold the transcribed text or the original ‘ink’ — the latter may be the most useful format for copperplate-challenged users such as me. OneNote also supports audio input; this is helpful for those already accustomed to dictating, but is perhaps less so for most end-users. As with handwriting, voice recognition is handled by the OS.

OneNote is like the proverbial tap-dancing elephant; we’re more impressed by its existence than its ability. OneNote failed to decipher illegible scrawling perfectly but it tried valiantly. It takes the novelty that is the Tablet PC and turns it into an indispensable tool. Even if some people’s handwriting isn’t easily recognised, OneNote still improves upon cocktail napkins. The ‘cool’ factor doesn’t hurt, either.

Collaboration and Outlook 2003

Office 2003 attacks the collaboration challenge by cobbling together a solution that enhances the core productivity apps using SharePoint and the new Live Communications Server. The results are delightful in some ways, perplexing in others, and mostly tangential to collaboration’s bread-and-butter application, e-mail.

Because e-mail is the key means of collaboration at nearly every company, let’s first zoom in on what Outlook 2003 brings to the table. The new Outlook does present a more attractive and more capable user interface. The classic three-pane view morphs, in this version, into a three-column layout that exploits today’s larger screens. As a result, it’s easier to scan lists of messages and you can read most messages without scrolling. For compulsive organisers, there’s a new way to group messages: search folders. The usual method of organising and moving messages into folders, by hand or automatically via filter rules, is still available. Search folders work, alternatively, as filters that collect pointers but leave the messages themselves. The model takes some getting used to. You don’t move a message to a search folder, for example; you build a search expression that causes the message to appear there. When you delete a message, it doesn’t just disappear from the search folder, it disappears from its real location, too. A message in your inbox, or in another conventional folder, may appear in several search folders.

We like this new organisational tool, but wish that the expression builder it shares with Outlook’s advanced search feature could tap into the XML data flows that the other Office applications can now produce. For that matter, why can’t Outlook produce XML content and metadata, as Word, Excel and InfoPath can? If the grand theme of Office 2003 is intelligent data, adding XML smarts to the documents we most often read, write and search for would seem an obvious first step.

Outlook’s built-in search engine is another area where we hoped for improvement but didn’t find any. It’s always been necessary to rely on third-party solutions to index and search the local message store and in Outlook 2003 that’s still true. The Outlook team opted not to build a throwaway solution that would be obsolete by the next platform wave due in 2005: the Longhorn version of Windows, built atop the Yukon database. But 2005 is a long way off and full-text search isn’t exactly rocket science, so this was disappointing news.

Outlook’s new user interface is spiffy, but it’s not a reason to upgrade. However, the overhaul of the plumbing that connects Outlook to Exchange Server just might be. In this new version, Outlook’s messages, contacts and calendar items are stored locally by default; synchronisation with the Exchange server is handled far more gracefully than before. Locked in a client/server embrace that began in the LAN era, Outlook and Exchange were previously ill-adapted to the fluid style of the modern worker who begins writing a message at his or her wired desk, revises it in a Wi-Fi-equipped conference room and sends it from an Internet cafe. Outlook 2003 manages these transitions deftly.

When you’re stuck with dial-up access, you’ll appreciate these niceties: newest messages arrive first, you can defer some or all message bodies and you can bump up the priority of a deferred body or attachment. If you’re running against the 2003 editions of Windows Server and Exchange Server, you can also take advantage of RPC over HTTP, which tunnels Exchange traffic through the standard SSL port. That means when you’re outside the firewall, you needn’t fire up a VPN connection just to sync mail.

Because our e-mail-oriented way of life is seriously threatened by the spam plague, we were curious to see how effectively Outlook 2003 fights back. Evaluating the product at the height of the Sobig.F outbreak gave us an excellent chance to test the product’s anti-spam capabilities. We were only mildly impressed. Even after we cranked the content filter up to its most aggressive setting, lots of junk got through.

To be fair, Microsoft intends the content filter only as a last line of defence. The foundation of Outlook’s anti-spam strategy is identity, not content. You can, for example, whitelist or blacklist e-mail addresses or entire domains, but such actions require more thought and effort than many users are willing or able to invest.

E-mail identity is also, in general, vulnerable to spoofing, although Microsoft points out that Exchange Server 2003 can distinguish between mail that is from the local domain and mail that only claims to be.

Identity filters may be the best tactic in the long run, but Outlook 2003’s most accessible anti-spam weapon is its content filter. And surprisingly, that filter doesn’t improve with use. Mac OS X’s Mail.app and the SpamBayes plug-in for earlier versions of Outlook learn what we want to read by watching how we manage our inboxes. Outlook 2003 doesn’t.

Here’s a trick question: what is Microsoft’s collaboration server? The answer used to be obvious: Exchange. Now it’s not so clear. Suppose you want to hold a discussion. You can still do that transiently in an e-mail thread, or with more permanence in an Exchange public folder. But Live Communications Server injects a new ingredient into the mix: IM-style presence. If you can see that the participants in the thread are online, you may want to switch to chat mode. Alternatively, you could launch a discussion on a SharePoint site that displays presence indicators. Even more intriguing, an Office document can now be a locus of presence-enhanced SharePoint collaboration.

E-mail, the Intranet and IM have been on a collision course for some time now. We are delighted to see Microsoft not only embracing all three modes, but also looking for ways to weave them together. Yet we can’t avoid a sense of déjà   vu. In the 1990s, Netscape tried something similar, offering a suite of collaboration servers and a matching suite of clients. There were compelling benefits, but also a lot of moving parts. We feel the same way about Office, Exchange, SharePoint and Live Communications Server. Users will find no single unifying theme akin to the Groove shared space. Administrators will have to install and manage three or four sets of clients and servers. The new capabilities are exciting, but it’ll take lots more integration to make Office-based collaboration a seamless and manageable experience.

Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003
Price: EUR529

Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003
Price: EUR500 per client licence, plus Media Kit EUR35 (one-off payment)

Microsoft OneNote 2003
Price: EUR209

Contact: Microsoft +353 (0)1-4502113, NetSpeed +353 (0)1-4498162

10/11/2003

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