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Microsoft's Suite Dreams

Office 2003 has enough new features and improvements to tempt users, despite the cost of an upgrade.

March 24, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - It's 2003, and Microsoft Corp. is getting ready to roll out its approximately biennial upgrade to Office, causing IT managers to ask themselves, one more time, whether they should (or indeed whether they can afford to) upgrade. Such an upgrade is never simple or cheap for enterprise IT. In the past, there have been serious downsides, such as when Microsoft changed the basic file formats and created incompatibility headaches for users who hadn't been switched over. And inevitably there are issues with training and support.

This time around, with Office 2003 (apparently, that "XP" nomenclature caused more problems than it solved), Microsoft is concentrating on expanding the envelope with new tools aimed at better collaboration among people.

I've been working with beta copies of the new software, and IT departments should seriously consider this upgrade. Even if you decide not to upgrade the suite, remember that the component applications of Office are available as stand-alone products. There may be good reason to upgrade individual applications—Outlook in particular—and perhaps add new ones.

Ongoing Evolution

Created by Microsoft in 1989, the office suite concept has proved to be a clever marketing device. By packaging a few basic applications in a single box, Microsoft sold a lot of software because it offered a convenient way for users and businesses to get most of what they needed for word processing, spreadsheets, presentation graphics and simple databases.

Over many generations of development, these applications improved individually, worked better together and got bigger—lots bigger. Microsoft has steadily added applications—Visio, Publisher, MapPoint, Project and FrontPage—to the original "core" set, with the developing goal of making Office a platform for workgroup collaboration and communication. (There's a timeline detailing the evolution of the Office suite at QuickLink a2990.)

With Office 2003, Microsoft has taken the biggest leap yet. It has made XML a standard file format for most applications and has launched two applications—InfoPath (formerly known as XDocs and NetDocs) and OneNote (nee Scribbler)—that offer new capabilities in the areas of forms, intelligent documents, note-taking and research.

Enterprise IT will want to investigate the new information rights management (IRM) controls debuting with Office 2003. This file-level security capability, which can be used only with Windows Server 2003, makes it easier for document owners to restrict access and change rights to specific content inside Office documents and e-mails.

For example, users can put expiration dates on messages and documents, and after those dates have passed, others wouldn't be able to read the documents without special permissions. Users can also make documents read-only, nonforwardable and nonprintable. After expiration, the documents still reside on the server or remote user's PC, but in encrypted form. A free IRM viewer will be available to users of older Office versions who need to work with IRM-protected documents.

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