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Microsoft competes with...itself?

In its Office XP release, Microsoft pulled out all the stops to snuff out the competition. But as CNET's Joe Wilcox points out, it's a case of Office vs. Office.

A friend of mine once suggested that Alfred E. Neuman looks a lot like a young Bill Gates.

I chuckled at the observation and rebutted that the Mad Magazine icon and Microsoft chairman had little in common. With this week's launch of Office XP, I'm not so sure.

One of my favorite ongoing Mad features is "Spy vs. Spy," which pits two super sleuths against each other in a constant struggle of mutual destruction. Neither really ever wins. Strangely, Microsoft's high-tech comic--and somewhat tragic--version of Mad's sleuth-toon might be called "Office vs. Office."

The Redmond, Wash.-based company on Thursday officially unveiled its newest Office version, Office XP, and pulled out all the stops to kill the competition. Corel WordPerfect? IBM Lotus SmartSuite? Hardly. Rivals in the crosshairs are Office 95, 97 and 2000. Microsoft can't get people to give up older versions of the software, with--by the company's estimation--as much as 60 percent of people using Office 95 or 97.

In this Office vs. Office match, businesses and consumers will ask if the Office version they have is good enough, or if they should buy into Microsoft's marketing machine and go for Office XP. The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you do with Office.

Most people's interest in Office XP, like anything else, may largely hinge on how they use the productivity suite. For basic word processing, Word 95--or any recent version of Microsoft Works--is good enough for most people. I just returned to working full time on Windows XP Beta 2 after nearly two months of experimenting with Mac OS X. Throughout the test, I wrote every single story using AppleWorks 6.1. I found most features, while basic, adequate for churning out stories.

But for anyone doing more sophisticated writing or collaborative work, Office XP's Word 2002 offers some nifty improvements over version 2000. Most of the changes are small and are available across all the applications.

Tweaks and tucks
Microsoft loves to talk about Smart Tags, a new feature found in Word 2002 and other Office XP programs. Understanding the value of Smart Tags is a little difficult at first. Microsoft pitches the feature as a quick and easy way to create, for example, dynamic content in a word processing document or spreadsheet.

If I misspell "spreadsheet," Word will correct the mistake. But if I deem the change as unnecessary, Word will offer a pull-down menu under "spreadsheet" for undoing the change. Another Smart Tag example: After typing "Bill Gates" in a Word document, I've got the option of pulling down a menu that could open his contact data file from Outlook 2002 or give his e-mail address (sorry, that's classified information). In Excel, Smart Tags could be used to get stock quotes or other company information from within a spreadsheet cell.

Another handy new feature is the Task Pane, a column that runs down the side of any open Office XP document. One view presents options for creating new documents. Another simplifies formatting, while a third offers sophisticated searches of the computer's hard drive, attached network or Outlook 2002 data file.

My favorite Task Pane--and one of Office XP's best features--is the Clipboard. Microsoft introduced a similar feature with Office 2000, which saved as many as 12 recently cut-and-pasted items. But the feature was difficult to use. Now those items run down a column along the right side of any open Office XP document or program.

Office XP also beefs up collaboration features, with more flexible markup and editing tools in Word 2002, smoother group calendaring in Outlook 2002, and the addition of a Web sharing function: SharePoint Team Services.

Using SharePoint Team Services, Office XP users can create collaborative Web sites for exchanging, editing or creating documents and managing schedules or contacts, among other features. Recognizing the appeal to small businesses or those with virtual offices, Microsoft's bCentral Web site is offering a free 60-day trial hosting SharePoint sites.

Other Office XP niceties: Speech and handwriting recognition, MSN Messenger access from Outlook 2002, and integration with Microsoft's Passport authentication service.

Overall, I would say Office XP boosted my productivity by as much as 10 percent. But could I live without all the little tweaks and nice touches? After suffering through nearly two months of using AppleWorks, I would have to say I could live without them.

Who benefits
So who benefits most from Office XP? Well, Microsoft. Since desktop applications accounted for about 50 percent of income in the most recent quarter, Microsoft has lots of incentive to encourage upgrades. Frankly, the company could use the sales.

Pretty much anyone buying a new PC should pick up Office XP; it's one of the cheapest ways to go to a new version of Office. Small businesses may find Office XP a good investment, particularly those moving from Office 95 or 97. Virtual workers or small businesses relying on the Web may find Office XP the productivity suite to have. But larger businesses may find, particularly if using Office 2000, that XP could be a good version to skip, as the expense of going to Office XP may not be justified by the new features.

A couple of cautionary notes: Office XP's approach to e-mail viruses is fairly heavy-handed. Outlook 2002 simply blocks more than 30 file types--including executables and HTML help files--and there is no easy way to turn the feature off.

Microsoft's new activation technology might give some people the willies, too. Upon installing Office XP, one can open programs 50 times before being forced to register by phone or over the Internet. Upon registration, Office is locked to the hardware configuration. While the license allows installation on a primary and secondary machines, such as a desktop or laptop, the second copy requires a phone call to Microsoft for a 44-key, one-time-only unlock code.

I ran into trouble when after installing Office XP on a notebook, I tried to put it on my desktop and could not activate the software. No problem. I uninstalled that version and put on a fresh copy with an unused license number. Apparently, Office XP left something on the computer, because I couldn't activate the second copy.

Still, I could call Microsoft, explain the situation and get the unlock code, which is what I did. But as I gave out my name, address and phone number in exchange for the code, a sudden sense of unease gripped me. While I had two legal copies of Office on two different PCs, briefly I was overcome with paranoia that the piracy police would bust down the door.

But as Alfred E. Neuman would say, "What, me worry?"