After so many versions, how much can Microsoft really change its Office suite? Depending on how you use it, the changes in Microsoft Office 2003 range anywhere from moderately useful to ground-breaking. Individual users running Office on a desktop will find the changes convenient but not necessarily essential. Nonetheless, the improvements are for the best and result in a more productive set of applications. Microsoft Word, for example, includes better change-tracking and annotation tools, additional views for working with documents, and other enhancements that make it easier to use. Meanwhile, Microsoft Outlook has had a fairly dramatic face-lift. The interface is better organized and generally more efficient. There are handy new features, such as the ability to look at shared calendars side by side, as well as a much-improved spam filter. A new application, Microsoft OneNote, looks to change the way we take notes when we want to save our thoughts and ideas. Integration among Office applications has gotten even stronger, making it easier to work with various types of data and move data from one application to another.
While individuals will find these general improvements helpful, the big changes are aimed at users working in collaborative environments. With Office 2003, Microsoft has changed its strategy for the suite. In fact, rather than referring to the new version as a suite, Microsoft has dubbed it the Microsoft Office System. This is because the new features—the pith of Office 2003’s improvements—extend beyond the desktop, making data available throughout the workplace.
Office 2003 is about collaboration. It’s about efficiency and a streamlined workflow. To start, the new Office integrates well with an improved Microsoft SharePoint service, allowing workers throughout a company to collaborate and work on documents. A central SharePoint portal lets team members post files, participate in threaded discussions, link to dynamic Web content, generate tables based on information in corporate databases, and so on. More important, however, is that the Office 2003 applications tie directly into the corporate system. You can, for example, share Word documents without ever leaving Microsoft Word and chat with coworkers from within applications.
The new version also makes greater use of XML. A new product, Microsoft InfoPath 2003, lets you design templates that pull information from databases and enter it into forms, which are then saved to the corporate database.
Meanwhile, data is no longer tied up in files and applications. Data typed into Excel, for example, can be made independent of Excel. It’s actually XML data. Now, you don’t need to print out an Excel spreadsheet and pass it to another department, which will rekey it into a different system; instead, the original Excel file can tie into the system and pass on the data electronically. In action, Office 2003 provides employees throughout the company access to up-to-the-minute data in real time.
Until now, working with XML has required a certain level of expertise. Granted, to get your systems up and running, your IT department will need to understand the ins and outs of this XML system. But Microsoft has taken much of the difficulty out of the process, putting the power of XML into the hands of mainstream business users. With a bit of understanding, these users will be able to customize their own documents, creating a more efficient workplace.