Microsoft Office 2003 – Is It Worth the Upgrade?

By John D. McCall, MCP

In October, Microsoft released the latest in their long line of Office suites – The Office 2003 System. In this new release, you will find several major additions to old favorites, as well as several new programs that have been added to Microsoft’s business productivity line. With all these new features and programs, you may start wondering – is this something we should think about upgrading soon? The answer to this question will depend largely on your current setup and whether the new features are going to meet a specific need in your organization.

There are multiple editions available for purchase, ranging from the high end Professional Edition to the smaller Small Business and Standard Editions. All three editions feature a retail price and an upgrade price. Chances are you qualify for the upgrade price; however, you need to be a user of an existing Office product whether it be Office XP, 2000, 97, or several versions of Works. The upgrade price is quite a price break when compared with the retail cost, so it is worth looking into. For pricing information, visit the Microsoft Office website at: http://office.microsoft.com/home/default.aspx.

There are several common themes in the Office 2003 systems that are reflected in the new features. These themes include XML support, document collaboration and shared workspaces, and information rights management. Beyond these themes, the changes that have been made to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are minimal.

All editions feature support of XML. Word and Excel let you save a document in native .xml format, just as simply as clicking File – Save As. The Professional Edition offers the ability to customize XML schemas, creating personalized data solutions for your organization. This is especially helpful as more accounting software vendors are incorporating XML in their products allowing you to easily transfer information to and from your applications.

Microsoft is also emphasizing the use of team collaboration. Shared workspaces, provided by solutions such as SharePoint Services, allow you to save a document where others can easily review and comment on it. Office 2003 integrates very well in this area; you can publish documents directly from Word or Excel to a shared workspace or shared folder on the network. You can also “lock down” part of or a whole document, specifying review, modification, or read permissions to specified individuals. Information Rights Management (IRM) takes this a step further – you can prevent certain recipients from copying, forwarding, or even printing your document. There is a catch, however, as IRM is only available in the Professional Edition of Office, and also requires the Rights Management Service in Windows Server 2003. All of these protection features are designed to protect intellectual property – a growing concern in businesses today.

PowerPoint offers changes to the way slide animations and transitions are implemented in a presentation, making it easier and faster to develop your presentations. The ability to publish documents to shared workspaces, as mentioned earlier, is also available. The “Package for CD” option lets you easily save your presentation, linked documents, and the PowerPoint viewer directly to a writable CD or a folder on your local or removable media.

The major upgrades in Office 2003 are found in Outlook. Nearly all functions of Outlook have been improved. Organization tools allow you to group emails by date, subject, conversation, or importance. The Reading Pane, previously found at the bottom of the screen, has been moved to the right side of the screen. This allows you to view more of an email message (often the entire message) without having to scroll. Users, who often search their inbox for specific keywords or messages from certain individuals, can now save their searches to dynamic search folders. Flagged messages are now automatically included in the “For Follow Up” folder, allowing you to use flags for “email triage”, managing important emails first.

Outlook also features greatly improved connection capability. Upon installation, a cached local file can be created, which then allows you to quickly and easily move between online and offline mode. This switch is almost seamless, and is not disruptive to the user. When in offline mode, users can create, read, and delete messages, which will then be synchronized when connection is restored. This connection works well in Exchange 5.5 and 2000, but is greatly improved in Exchange 2003. This appears to be designed for wireless environments, where connections may be lost periodically.

The two new programs are very useful tools that provide a good compliment to the other programs in the Office System. OneNote is a powerful note taking and organization tool. All can benefit from its use, but users of Tablet PCs can take advantage of the pen input device to include handwriting and drawing that makes OneNote much more powerful. InfoPath is a data collection/form building tool that can help you leverage XML to manage information in your enterprise.

Back to the original question – is this something we should think about upgrading soon? You should if any of these features meet a specific need in your organization. If you are using XML, shared workspaces for collaboration, or are interested in Information Rights Management, you may want to move in this direction quickly. The typical firms that have rolled out Office 2003 already have also rolled out (or will soon) Windows Server 2003, Exchange 2003, and often SharePoint Portal Server 2003.

If none of the new features mean much to you, then upgrading should be less of a priority. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Office 2003 System – but think of the phrase “evolution, not revolution”. While this is clearly the best Office suite yet, there have not been any major advancements in the way spreadsheets and word processing work. Word and Excel are just as good as they always have been. The one product that is worth the upgrade is Outlook, due to the added organization features and connectivity. As a package, however, you may want to wait until your next upgrade cycle when new computers may come pre-packaged with Office 2003, or another convenient time when you can upgrade your entire user base.

For more information on the Office 2003 System, visit the Microsoft Office website at: http://office.microsoft.com/home/default.aspx


John D. McCall is the Network Administrator and Webmaster for Boomer Consulting, Inc., an organization devoted to the application of computer technology and management consulting located in Manhattan, Kansas.


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