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Microsoft releases major Office update

Service Pack 1 for Office 2003 is out. Will it prompt a new slew of upgrades?

Microsoft released on Tuesday the first major update for Office 2003, but analysts say the collection of bug and performance fixes is unlikely to spur a significant boost in sales.

Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Office 2003 is available for download from Microsoft's Office Update site. The package contains a series of bug fixes and stability improvements for the main Office 2003 package--a collection of productivity tools such as the Word word processor and Outlook e-mail client--plus more sweeping changes and new applications.

SP1 releases are traditionally considered major benchmarks for Microsoft applications, with the many IT managers waiting until the release of the first bug fix roundup before they install a new application.

That's unlikely to happen with Office 2003, however, said Paul De Groot, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft. A relative paucity of major bugs in Office 2003 has encouraged IT folks interested in upgrading to do so promptly, as evidenced by Microsoft's quarterly earnings report last week showing a significant jump in revenue for the Office division. "It does not appear to have been a terribly problematic release," De Groot said.

Businesses holding off on Office 2003, however, may be doing so because they need more time to test and plan for implementation, De Groot said. Enhancements in the new release are focused on under-the-hood improvements such as XML functions and digital rights management, capabilities that require significant and sometimes problematic integration with other IT systems.

"There's a fair amount of work for any company that really wants to leverage all the new capabilities of Office 2003," De Groot said. "There's a great deal of developer work that needs to take place...Any organization that saw something significant in 2003 was probably looking at integration with other systems, and they may still need time to evaluate."

The most obvious changes in SP1 are related to the InfoPath electronic forms product and the OneNote notetaking application. Based on user feedback and product testing, Microsoft has made significant changes to the way those applications look and work.

Tweaks for core Office applications such as Word and Excel are more under the hood and focus on improving stability and performance, said Jeanne Sheldon, director of Office management and updating services.

"With the core applications, customers have become very accustomed to working with them in certain ways," Sheldon said. "We don't want to make changes in an interim release that are disruptive for the customer."

Instead, Microsoft engineers combed through thousands of reports generated by Microsoft's Watson and other error-reporting tools to pinpoint what was making applications crash or perform erratically.

"We've really worked through the information we get back from the customer experience program," Sheldon said. "We can categorize the reports based on the particular components involved and the line of code that's failing--and go straight for the significant hitters...We were able to increase the reliability of the product across a number of different measures about sevenfold."