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Office XP: Should you take the plunge?

Microsoft's new upgrade is almost here. Chris Le Tocq examines whether the product's features are compelling enough to justify a decision to migrate your company's computer users.

    In a few days, Microsoft will start delivering the new version of Office XP to its biggest customers, and the retail release is slated for the end of May.

    This upgrade is critical for Microsoft. Office is the single largest contributor to its business at 37 percent of revenue, yet it's seen no growth for the last nine months from the previous year. A revenue injection from an Office upgrade is important for Microsoft to meet its growth expectations.

    For companies, any upgrade to a new version of Office is expensive and time-consuming, a process fraught with difficult decisions. It's made doubly difficult when a company already has a version of this office software that works well and then hears about Office.Net's planned debut sometime next year.

    So the question is whether you should make your investment today with Office XP or defer upgrading until next year to evaluate Office.Net.

    Office XP
    We can get closer to answering the first question by examining whether Office XP can provide significant value today. Microsoft regards Office as a mature product; with each new version, the company strives mightily to improve on what it previously regarded as perfection.

    Most people would probably not instantly associate perfection with Office but would acknowledge that the basic functions work well. However, it is with an improvement in the basic everyday functions that the best value can be obtained.

    Office XP includes three new, basic capabilities. The first two focus on discoverability, exposing features that would otherwise be hidden. The third addresses document safety, a key concern.

    The Task Pane provides an area on the right-hand side that lists all of the options available to users in six basic areas, depending on what they are doing. But it isn't always there for familiar users and doesn't cover advanced use, such as creating tables or charts in Word. It's a 1.0 implementation that shows promise but will be better next time around.

    Smart Properties (a feature of Smart Tags), like the Task Pane, is designed to provide visual assistance in the document for a wide range of actions. So if you copy a sentence, a small icon will materialize inviting you to discover other copy options.

    Document Auto Recovery and Repair provides additional recovery capabilities if Office crashes or a document is damaged. The confusing dialogs from previous versions have been replaced with clearer instructions, but the process is still not fully automated.

    There are a variety of other minor changes, but these three comprise the core additions to basic productivity. Document auto-recovery may not be perfect in providing a way to avoid losing your work, but anytime Office does that, it's an improvement even if it's not a justification for an upgrade. The first two new features are helpful for new users and people who find themselves using an unfamiliar part of Office. Still, they are unlikely to deliver substantial increased value for the majority of users.

    Beyond the basics, Office XP addresses two areas that are designed to appeal to organizations with wider requirements.

    Office XP adds two new capabilities that people who work as teams and actively exchange documents may find useful. The integration with Outlook provides the capability to route documents for review to multiple users--even to Office 97 users--and consolidate responses in one document.

    Microsoft has also upgraded the Office Server extensions to provide SharePoint Team Services. SharePoint provides the ability to generate multiple intranet Web sites that teams can use to provide a collaboration forum including threaded discussions, task lists and document storage. On the downside, SharePoint encourages islands of collaboration rather than an integrated structure.

    Organizations where people are involved in in-depth collaboration and are prepared to invest in some management of SharePoint should nevertheless examine these two capabilities; they can provide real benefit.

    Automation: Office as a platform
    For organizations planning to automate people's interactions, the new Smart Tags capability provides a programmable interface and a third-party development kit that provides developers with continual access to every piece of content generated in Word and Excel. For example, on an intranet, code written to this interface can examine every word against an internal database of customers or products. For Internet access, this provides Microsoft and third parties with the ability to sell in code that can link any document's contents to .Net services or Web databases.

    Organizations should be prepared for their workers to be exposed to a host of .Net services designed to run inside Office XP. While Smart Tags provide an automation opportunity internally, the challenge is to put in place the policies and tools to ensure that desktops are secure and safe from third-party code.

    So is Office XP worth it now, or should you wait?

    The Office team at Microsoft has regained control of Office.Net, but don't expect the software to be offered as a low-cost alternative. The product will more likely figure as a subscription-based add-on to Office. But what will Office.Net offer by comparison?

    The most likely capabilities will include:

    • Document viewing and editing components that are functional offline as well as online for PCs and personal digital assistants. This strikes a key balance of functionality with the desktop product but will probably restrict editing to simple rich text formats, at least initially. This will be most useful for review and comment.

    •  Proprietary XML-based document formats that will support reduced-function editing on low-capability PDAs. The current Office 97 format will be for desktop file-exchange only with an enhanced Web store version of SharePoint for structured review and comment. Automatic synchronization between the Web store and devices will also be included.

    • Smart Tags developed for desktop use using .Net will also run against the same documents on the Web store, providing an opportunity for automated document routing and analysis.

    Bottom line
    If your work environment is highly collaborative, then Office XP has tools that can help. On the downside, putting in place a product that exposes a new desktop platform requires strict attention to security and management.

    Office XP's main enhancements are in its collaborative capabilities and its value as an automation technology for future .Net services, not in basic functionality. If these new services aren't important today, don't bother upgrading until Office.Net's capabilities are better defined.