What’s so great about the Office 2003 software system that Microsoft announced yesterday was ready to roll off the assembly line? While the Redmond, Washington-based software company has indeed spruced up the core applications in the package — including Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, PowerPoint, Visio, FrontPage and Publisher — that’s not the big news.
The big news about Office 2003 is not the incremental upgrade to the Office stable of applications; it’s the company’s insertion into the Office lineup of several entirely new technologies, including Infopath and OneNote.
These new technologies are designed to support what the company is calling the “smart document.” Based on information users enter, smart documents can return useful results that people can use to fill out forms, write reports or complete documents. Microsoft’s argument is that employees will spend less time looking up company data and placing it into files, and more time exercising their judgment and creativity.
Infopath will let users work with forms based entirely on extensible markup language — most commonly called XML — from inside Office. XML might seem like dull stuff to consumers, but the technology can be very important for form-oriented businesses — such as insurance companies and health-care providers — who want to capture data with minimal human intervention.
Among other advantages, XML technology lets users tag information thoroughly for later electronic manipulation — such as drawing the data into Microsoft’s new smart-document technology. Existing interfaces for working with the technology aren’t very user friendly. Microsoft hopes Infopath will change that.
According to Michael Desmond, author of the forthcoming book Microsoft Office 2003 in 10 Steps or Less from Wiley & Sons, Infopath is easy to grasp. After launching the application, users can drop controls on the screen to build an on-screen form that will produce XML from the data it gets, he told TechNewsWorld.
“But if this is an effort to propagate XML throughout the enterprise, this is going to be tough sledding,” said Desmond. “The idea of people throwing together XML forms and exchanging XML data the way they do a spreadsheet or Word documents is off base.”
He noted that Infopath’s interface might create a bit of a learning curve for Office veterans. “But the software wasn’t by any stretch impossible to use,” he said. “For IT managers who are looking for a way to use XML in more processes, there’s some real potential there.”
Infopath is seen by some observers as part of Microsoft’s attempt to dominate the budding forms market while it is still nascent. However, despite initial positive reaction to Microsoft’s Infopath technology among the analyst community, the company is expecting stiff competition from Adobe Systems, which earlier this year announced it was developing forms software to churn out documents in both PDF and XML formats.
Adding Infopath to Office 2003 seems to be Microsoft’s attempt to blunt Adobe’s entrance into that market.
In addition to Infopath, Microsoft also will be adding OneNote, a free-form database and note-taking program. While these kinds of programs have been a rich vein mined by independent software makers for years, Microsoft has enhanced the genre by using OneNote as a bridge to its Tablet PC version of the Windows operating system, which lets users take handwritten notes directly on their tablet PCs.
The program is supposed to give users a convenient place to store bits of information when Word and Excel would be too cumbersome or when users want to avoid writing something on a paper note that could be lost.
OneNote appears to provide a robust solution to a major shortfall of Outlook — its note-taking capabilities — which consumers rarely have used.
In addition to these major new applications, Office 2003 also will provide several more-than-incremental upgrades, including information rights management (IRM) to help give companies greater control over their own digital data.
According to Microsoft, IRM functionality will help protect internal business information, such as confidential planning documents or financial reports. IT administrators will be able to set policies that wield greater control over who can open, copy, print or forward information created in Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.
IRM relies on Microsoft’s Rights Management Service technology in Windows Server 2003.
In addition to IRM, the new version of Office will come with better spam guards. Employees who have accidentally opened a junk e-mail message probably have noticed that they then become a target for even more junk messages. When opening a message, the user can inadvertently launch a Web session to access a spammer’s server, which can validate their e-mail address and create more spam.
Outlook 2003 will help prevent this occurrence with the “block external content” feature, which blocks unauthorized connections to a Web server until the user decides to view the message. Because Outlook 2003 doesn’t allow unannounced connections to arbitrary Web servers, it can restrict an unwanted flow of user information to e-mail solicitors.
Overall, industry analysts seem to be praising the new technologies announced for Office 2003, which seems to be a worthwhile upgrade and certainly a mightier step up than the move from Office 2000 to XP was. The new Office 2003 is priced at US$399 for the standard edition and $499 for the professional edition and will be released in October.