Gates touts Office furnishings

Microsoft's chairman presides over the release of Office System, a new family of products that dramatically expands the role of the productivity software.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
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David Becker
5 min read
NEW YORK--Microsoft on Tuesday released what its executives touted as one of the most significant product updates in the company's history: a fresh version of Office with extensive new hooks into corporate computing systems.

During a speech at the main Office System launch event here, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the new software line--which combines familiar Office productivity programs with new business applications--ushers in a broad new role for Office as the common interface for creating and interacting with corporate data.


What's new:
Microsoft's new version of its Office software package, Office System, combines familiar Office productivity features with new business applications.

Bottom line:
For the most part, companies have waited for bug fixes and the like before widely implementing new versions of Office. Still, the sophisticated server-related and XML functions in Office System could extend such delays, potentially limiting the moneymaking clout of Microsoft's software package.

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"We're introducing more software products in a single day than any day in our history," Gates said. "Every one of these products is about sharing information and collaborating."

The most significant part of Office System is Office 2003, the productivity package widely used to create documents, spreadsheets and other business materials. While previous Office upgrades have focused on new tools and services, the most significant updates in Office 2003 are under the hood, such as dramatically enhanced support for Extensible Markup Language (XML), the fast-spreading standard for exchanging data between disparate computing systems.

Broad XML support will allow Office applications to serve as a general container for exchanging data with corporate databases and other back-end systems, and for tapping Web services and other tasks that normally would require separate client software.

"Office, which has always been extremely important to personal productivity...now becomes a work space for team and organizational productivity," said Jeff Raikes, a Microsoft group vice president.

"I think these advances would not have been possible without the industry's commitment to XML and Web services," Gates added. "This is definitely becoming the common way that all the software on the Internet connects together."

XML support has attracted broad interest from other technology companies, with more than 700 partners introducing Office-related products and services at the launch, and hundreds more in development. Backers range from small specialty software makers to computing giants such as Hewlett-Packard, which built several new solutions and services packages around Office System products, particularly SharePoint collaboration tools.

Bill Carlisle, director of HP's Microsoft solutions group, said Office 2003 has created numerous opportunities for HP as a systems integrator, creating the connections between Office applications and server resources.

"You can take the technology and package it in a lot of different ways to address specific customer needs," he said.

As a hardware seller, HP sees Office 2003's efficient use of back-end resources as a good argument to get business to update their server installations, Carlisle said. "If you look just at messaging systems, there's huge potential for server consolidation."

Office 2003 also introduces digital rights management to the software, with support for server-based tools that let office workers restrict access to documents. The technology has provoked controversy because it requires compatible Microsoft server technology and prevents competing productivity software, such as the open-source OpenOffice, from reading protected files. But Microsoft expects the technology to be a quick hit with businesses that deal extensively in sensitive documents, such as legal and financial offices.

An array of applications
Besides Office 2003, Office System includes several new applications. InfoPath is Microsoft's entry in the emerging market for electronic forms, online documents that automatically route data entered to relevant back-end computing systems. InfoPath is expected to have a slow start, mainly attracting companies looking to automate internal business processes.

An enterprise push
for Office

Microsoft's upgrade is designed
to help wire employees together
and link them into enterprise
data and processes.

Gates said InfoPath addresses a growing need Microsoft identified several years ago for an application focused on presenting highly structured information and delivering it to corporate computing systems. "We realized there was a missing piece in Microsoft Office," he said.

OneNote is Microsoft's new application for taking notes and organizing them with research data from other sources. Target markets for the application include college students and the slowly growing audience of Tablet PC users.

Several existing products also have been folded into Office System, including SharePoint, Microsoft's line of server products for collaboration and information sharing, and Live Meeting, the company's stab at videoconferencing.

"Collaboration is the theme of this release," Gates said. "How do you share information?"

Tuesday also marked the release of several products affiliated with, but not actually part of, Office System, most notably Exchange 2003, the new version of Microsoft's e-mail server software. Changes in Exchange 2003 include numerous filtering and organizing tools that work in conjunction with Outlook, the e-mail client included in Office 2003, to reduce exposure to junk e-mail and make it easier to find relevant messages, Gates said.

Specific enhancements include a revamped version of Outlook Web Access, the set of Exchange features used to allow e-mail access via the Web. "People want e-mail on every device, everywhere they go," Gates said. "Historically, if you did e-mail through the browser, it was a very limited experience. You essentially had to learn a different user interface than Outlook. The basic interface (in Outlook Web Access) now is exactly the same as Outlook."

Caching enhancements in Outlook and Exchange also store e-mail much more efficiently, allowing geographically diverse companies to cut back their e-mail infrastructure, Gates said. "Microsoft has gone from 56 places with Exchange servers down to seven," he said.

Exchange 2003 also offers enhancements intended to warm the hearts of IT administrators, including direct support for remote connections, eliminating the need for virtual private networking (VPN) support, said Melissa Stern, a Microsoft product manager. "If a company is providing VPN access purely for messaging, this eliminates the need for that," she said. "That cuts a lot of cost and support calls right there."

Security and privacy have been enhanced in Exchange, through increased support for third-party antivirus and antispam products. "We've provided a lot more hooks for third-party vendors to plug into," Stern said.

Exchange 2003 also comes with a full set of integration and migration tools for businesses upgrading from Exchange 5.5, the 5-year-old version of the software that still accounts for the majority of Exchange installations.