Perhaps to assuage the clamoring public or to work out some development kinks, Microsoft has released a public beta of its popular office suite. Our initial assessment? As in Office XP, the suite's most prominent changes target the professional market. True, Microsoft has enhanced some of Office 2003's applications, adding small improvements such as Outlook's better e-mail handling and spam filtering. But most Office enhancements benefit large-scale setups. Corporate intranets will get a lot out of the suite's new XML integration, which facilitates moving information from one program to another, and its beefed-up collaboration features. Corporate buyers may want to give this beta a run. But, if nothing much changes with the final release, consumers won't find much reason to upgrade. In any event, you may want to see for yourself, and perhaps give Microsoft constructive feedback.
Before you can try the Office 2003 beta, you need to get it onto your PC. Unfortunately, for those of you with older PCs, this public beta will install only on computers running Windows 2000 or XP. That leaves out anyone using Windows 95 or 98, but, to be fair, it's possible that those older OSs cannot run Office 2003 properly. If you do run a preferred OS, get ready to pony up shipping fees ($19.95) to nab the new beta. Official beta testers will receive the discs for free. (Note: CNET doesn't recommend installing beta code; do so at your own risk.)
Installing the Office 2003 beta takes you through the now-familiar product activation process, debuted in Office XP, which locks the suite to one desktop and one laptop PC. But because Office 2003 relies on Windows Installer 2.0, you don't have to reboot the machine after the process is complete, as in earlier editions of the suite. We like that.
As always, you can pick and choose which applications to put on the drive, weeding out those tools and features you don't need. Most new enhancements to Office 2003's installation process affect only large organizations deploying the suite. Corporate users who install from either the CD or from a network drive can create a local cache of the installation files so that they can implement future changes--adding a tool or an app not installed first time around, say--without the CD or access to the network.
The Office apps' interfaces have either changed a lot, some, or none, depending on the program. Outlook 2003 clearly received the greatest overhaul, with a totally reworked preview pane (now called the Reading Pane) that shows twice as much of a message, customizable search folders, and the ability to display two calendars side by side.
Word's new Reading Mode, one of Office's few interface changes, lets you edit documents that look like printed pages.
Other applications, such as Word, are more or less the same as their predecessors. Word's toolbars and task panes, for example, look a bit flashier and more colorful than in past versions, but that's the biggest change. There's just one new interface element of note: To make digital documents easier to read, Reading Mode (activated by the Start Reading toolbar button) attempts to reformat your documents to look like printed pages--sort of like Adobe Acrobat. But in Reading Mode, unlike in Acrobat Reader or the former Print Preview, your documents remain editable. On an LCD, the text looks as clear as can be--great for browsing long documents.
Like every iteration of Office, this newest edition sports a host of enhancements and additions. But it's clear that Office has matured enough so that new doesn't necessarily mean better--at least for home and small business customers.
A new, improved Outlook
Microsoft makes a big deal out of Outlook's improved functionality, with good reason. Although Outlook isn't the perfect mail client and scheduler, this version is substantially easier to use and comes with a bevy of new features. You can now group messages and replies in a long back-and-forth exchange so that you can easily see the most recent message or reply to any message in the thread. The ability to flag messages with a single click (something Outlook Express already does) makes it easy to mark important messages. And best of all, you can customize Outlook's Search Folders to create new views, such as Last Week's Mail or Mail Today, that cut through the clutter by showing you only messages with certain attributes, such as flags. In addition, Outlook's new Reading Pane gives you more room to read messages than previous Outlook versions did. If the three vertical panes feel a bit cramped, you can customize Outlook's interface to put the Reading Pane on the bottom, as in Outlook 2002.
Microsoft showered Outlook with improvements. One of its most useful new features is the much larger preview pane on the far right.
At long last, Outlook finally incorporates antispam measures, including a built-in filter and the ability to build or even import lists of accepted (whitelist) and junk mail (blacklist) domains. In version 2003, Outlook not only identifies mail as junk mail, it automatically tosses that junk into a new Junk E-mail folder (or, if you want, Outlook will automatically delete it). Previous Outlook iterations made you create Rules to manage your Inbox--a real pain in the neck. However, in our brief time with Outlook's antispam filter, it caught only about one in three junk messages. It's better than nothing, but we'd like the option to block various languages and character sets. We've had it with overseas porn.
Other new additions
On a higher note, Word now includes a format-locking feature so that you can lock down any document's formatting and style or restrict the number of formatting styles others can apply--creating, in essence, a template. This should appeal to companies that want all official documents to have the same look and feel. PowerPoint and Access now offer up SmartTags, too, those sometimes-annoying (but usually handy) icons that automatically appear to mark such things as addresses, names, and other selected data, as Excel and Word have done in the past.
In addition to the usual suspects, two brand-new programs have entered the Microsoft toolkit. OneNote, a potentially indispensable note-taking and recording program, will appeal to all manner of note takers, from students to personal assistants. InfoPath, formerly known as X-Docs, enhances individual Office applications' ability to collect and share data via compatible servers. So far, only InfoPath will actually be bundled with other office apps, in Office's Enterprise Edition.
XML: busting out all over
The biggest Office 2003 enhancement plays only to the corporate crowd: better XML (Extensible Markup Language) integration for enterprises that increasingly use the XML standard to import data from remote sources, such as business processes or online information services. Office 2003's core applications--Word, Access, and Excel--can create documents using XML data pinched from other applications or online services. Word, for instance, could grab numbers from a sales application that provides its data in XML format, then automatically generate tables for, say, a weekly report. Plus, Word 2003 saves XML docs in a single file.
All the applications in Office can create and manage XML documents and use XML to share data and documents among themselves. But to end users, whether or not to use XML really isn't a question; XML is seamlessly integrated into individual applications. If your company relies on XML for information exchange, on the other hand, you may be able to trim some time producing documents or spreadsheets. With InfoPath, companies can use XML's data-gathering and grouping functionality to create interactive surveys and forms for collecting and managing data. For instance, a mail room may use InfoPath forms to collect and share inventory data. Of course, this capability won't matter much to most consumers and small or home offices.
Over the years, Microsoft Office has gradually become more Internet-aware as well. Office 2003 continues that tradition by adding more online collaboration tools. The new SharePoint Team Services 2.0 (which works off of the yet-unreleased Windows Server 2003, Internet Information Services (IIS), and SQL Server) features a document work space where employees share documents with coworkers. SharePoint also offers a new Meetings work space for conducting online presentations, sharing meeting minutes and action items, and managing all materials and follow-up actions.
As in the past, the final version of Microsoft Office will come in several versions, each of which consist of a different blend of applications. Look for seven versions of Office 2003 this year, among them: Microsoft Office Basic 2003 Edition (OEM only), which contains Word 2003, Excel 2003, and Outlook 2003; Microsoft Office Standard 2003 Edition (available in Retail and all Volume Licenses), which adds PowerPoint 2003; Microsoft Office Small Business 2003 Edition, which includes Microsoft Publisher 2003 and Microsoft Office Business Contact Manager 2003; and Microsoft Office Professional 2003 (available in Retail, OEM, and Academic), which adds Microsoft Access 2003, full support for customer-defined XML schemas, and IRM content creation and authoring. Pricing is not yet available.
Support for this beta version of Office 2003 is a heck of a lot better than support for most prerelease software. But as per Microsoft's traditional approach to betas, you don't get the one-to-one phone or e-mail support you would with a released product. You can, however, access newsgroups from the Microsoft Web site, where other beta users hang out, and connect to the beta Office Web site, where you can retrieve templates and read articles. Once the suite officially rolls out, the usual glut of Microsoft support options, including a top-notch knowledge database and expensive phone calls, will come into play.
Help in Office applications now appears in the Task Pane. You can also search Microsoft's Web site just by typing text and clicking the green arrow.
Office 2003 doesn't debut any new fix-it features but retains the help menu's Check For Updates and Detect And Repair functions, which go online and sniff for updates or patches and repair any damaged or corrupted files. We'd like to see Office become part of the Windows Update process, which automatically scans your PC and recommends updates, so that we wouldn't have to go two places--one to patch Windows, another to fix Office. Alas, that won't happen in this edition.