Business-like, isn't he?



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    New Office suite better suited to bigger offices

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver November 4- 10 2003 High Tech Office column

    If statistics are to be relied on, virtually all of you are running some version of Microsoft Office. On October 21, the software leviathan unleashed a new version, Office 2003, in a bewildering number of different packages. Many users are now wondering what's lurking in the new package for them.

    Office Professional 2003 installed easily over top of my existing installation, pretty much respecting the various customizations that I'd made over time. Like the last version, it requires activation online or by phone, and continues the practice of allowing users to install it onto two computers: one at home, one at work, for example. Many individual users may prefer to buy the lower-priced Student and Teacher edition, which can be legally purchased by anyone with a student in the family. But if you're thinking of upgrading, note that this new version requires Windows 2000 or XP. If you use Windows 95, 98, Me, or NT4, don't even think about it.

    The first thing new users will notice is the attractive blue-shading on the menu and tool bars. But beyond appearance, new features may seem a bit lacking. Word offers a new 'Book View,' making it possible to view and edit two pages side by side. There are subtle but useful improvements in tracking changes to documents. Excel offers List functions (borrowed from Office's Mac version), recognizing that real people often use spreadsheets not for number-crunching, but as a quick and dirty way to organize lists. Choose Create List and you'll find it easier to add data, count items, average, sum and more.

    Outlook is the most changed, with a more efficient screen arrangement, the ability to view shared calendars side by side and much-improved spam filtering. Junk mail filtering is set to "low" by default. You may want to try it at a more rigorous setting if you're feeling deluged with spam. (Users of older Outlook 2000 or XP versions can get similar filtering with the free, open-source SpamBayes,

    All Office applications now offer better support for users of new Tablet PCs.

    The secret is that despite the plethora of packages marketed at home and small business users, this new version wasn't really developed for them. Instead, this upgrade is for large enterprises, many of which will automatically qualify for it as part of their Microsoft licences.

    For this market, we see the evolution of the "Office System," with Office 2003 meant to integrate with a series of Microsoft server products: SharePoint, Exchange, Live Communication Server and more. With all the pieces in place, enterprises gain powerful tools for communicating and organizing work. Users can create mini-Web sites for posting documents, automatically notifying colleagues of changes, for example. XML links can be created (by someone who knows what they're doing!) to outside reference or content sources - translation services, stock prices, news search. The new Office applications all contain a Shared Workspace task pane letting users share documents, view others' shared documents or communicate with workgroup members without needing to fire up a Web browser or chat software.

    These features have great potential to make users more productive, but to make it work will require enterprises to have a vision and commitment, lock into the full set of Microsoft products, spend time developing customized XML data structures and train staff.

    Tied in with the Office 2003 release is a series of "Office Accelerators," focusing on specific business tasks - sales proposals, recruiting, quality-management, financial reports and scenarios and business scorecards. Each package (sold separately), integrates Office applications with products from Microsoft and third parties.

    If you use Office in a large organization, you'll probably end up with the new version sooner or later. Time will tell whether your organization makes good use of the new features. But if you're someone who has to pay for his or her own software, you may not find enough new and improved in Office 2003.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan