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Microsoft To Debut Office Beta; Sun Bows New StarOffice

By Brad Hill
Mar 10, 2003 10:35 AM PT

In a massive upgrade and testing initiative, Microsoft is set to release 500,000 "beta 2" copies of Microsoft Office System, an enlarged and modernized version of the company's office productivity suite. The beta release marks one of Microsoft's most extensive testing programs ever, and by far the largest test of an Office product. The commercial version of Microsoft Office System is slated for mid-2003.

Microsoft To Debut Office Beta; Sun Bows New StarOffice

In related news, Sun Microsystems has announced it will issue a beta release of its StarOffice productivity suite, version 6.1. StarOffice, a low-cost alternative to Microsoft's Office products, is a commercial version of an open-source application suite called OpenOffice.

Aiming at Enterprise

Although all Microsoft Office products are available on retail shelves for consumers, Microsoft Office System is aimed squarely at the corporate productivity market. The product is being positioned as a unified platform of applications and services, stretching from the front-end user to the back-end administrator, the intent of which is "to transform information into business impact."

To that end, Microsoft's press release identifies Windows Server 2003 as a key operating system on which to run Office System. Windows Server 2003 is scheduled to launch April 24th.

Microsoft also is pointing up its Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), an information-sharing environment built on Internet standards. A so-called Web services solution, WSS enables relatively frictionless information management through a personalized Web portal, according to Microsoft. It is included in the Office System beta 2 release.

New Features

In addition to the traditional building blocks of the Office suite -- Outlook, Excel, Word, Access and PowerPoint -- Microsoft Office System also includes additional components that either are new or were previously stand-alone products:

  • FrontPage 2003: Microsoft's graphical Web-page designer and HTML editor
  • InfoPath 2003: A new information-gathering system that receives input to XML databases through standard Web forms
  • OneNote 2003: A new note-taking application
  • Publisher 2003: A new design application for creating marketing communications

    FrontPage and InfoPath combine what Microsoft describes as "the world's first" graphical XSLT (extensible stylesheet language transformations) editor. XSLT acts a bridge between an XML database on the back end and user-input features on the front end.

    Hitting the Right Note

    Much of the analyst buzz surrounding Microsoft Office System is focused on OneNote. Though it might seem like a small add-on, rather like Notepad is attached to Windows, this program points to a new paradigm of front-end computing.

    "OneNote has been developed to address tablet computing," Rob Enderle, research fellow at Giga Information Group, told the E-Commerce Times. "It fits the tablet metaphor and enables users to categorize, search for and find their thoughts better than with pen and paper."

    Unchanging Market Share

    Meanwhile, although Sun's announcement coincided with Microsoft's, Yankee Group senior analyst Laura DiDio said Microsoft's key competitor is not StarOffice. "StarOffice will have appeal for the SOHO [small office and home office] market, but the overall market share won't change appreciably," she told the E-Commerce Times. Microsoft's market share of the office productivity field is at least 90 percent.

    "Microsoft's biggest competitor is itself," DiDio added. "With the economic downturn and the quality of Microsoft's earlier products, the challenge will be to get customers, even those who would absolutely love to migrate, up and running. Customers simply might not have the cash."

    DiDio predicted a 15 to 20 percent adoption rate during the first year, and she emphasized that the fate of Windows Server 2003 will play a part in Office System's penetration curve. Enterprises still using Windows NT 4 on the back end might see Server 2003 as a compelling upgrade opportunity, and they could scoop up Office System at the same time to realize the full potential of a more unified system.

    New Paradigms

    While the commercial fate of Office System remains to be determined, there is universal agreement that Microsoft is aiming high with this product.

    "This is a pretty important and substantial release," Yankee Group senior analyst Dana Gardner told the E-Commerce Times, "because it really changes the file structure and the ability of files to be shared. Given the wide adoption of XML in this product, Microsoft has given its software developers the opportunity to use Office applications as front ends in a way they didn't have access to before."

    Giga's Enderle noted that Office System is the first version of Office that has gone through the advanced security testing adopted by Microsoft nearly two years ago. "Substantial work has been done on Outlook," he said. "It is more reliable and less susceptible to network problems."

    Backward Compatibility

    However, though network integration and streamlined information flow are positive developments, a question of compatibility exists. Microsoft is including server elements in its Office System beta 2 distribution -- but those elements will not be included in the final product, and enterprises will have to purchase them separately if they want a full upgrade of the front and back ends. Microsoft Office System is backward compatible with previous servers, however.

    "The server upgrades are required to achieve the system's full potential, but [Office System] is, by itself, a vastly improved product," Enderle noted.


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