Office 2003 pushes integration forward

Microsoft Corp. officials are reaching out beyond the desktop with their latest version of Office. The two most significant enhancements in Office 2003 are its tight integration with SharePoint, Microsoft's Web-based collaboration platform, and its broad support for Extensible Markup Language.

Whether your department is ready to upgrade may depend on your budget, your desktop hardware and operating systems, and your department's progress on the integration path. If XML and online collaboration are important to your department's mission, you should at least take a look at Office 2003.

Before you consider moving to the suite, however, take note that it requires Windows 2000, Windows XP, or Service Pack 3 or later. If your desktop systems are still running Windows 98, moving to Office 2003 will mean upgrading the operating system, too. And departments running machines with smaller hard drives should also consider that a full installation requires about 800M of hard-disk space, depending on which features you install.

Although Microsoft officials claim that Office 2003 will run on an Intel Corp. Pentium 233 MHz, I'd recommend at least a Pentium 3 with 128M of memory. I found that Office 2003 was somewhat sluggish on a 450 MHz Pentium II running Windows XP with 256M of RAM.

XML anybody?

XML promises to move information across heterogeneous computer systems by using a common set of user-defined tags to describe types of data. Until now, most XML integration took place at the back end. With this latest version of Office, however, Microsoft is attempting to bring integration to the desktop — a revolutionary advancement. XML support is built into Word and Excel, and the Enterprise Edition of Office Professional 2003 includes InfoPath, a new XML forms creation tool.

Overall, the XML integration works well, especially in Word, in which the tools offer a similar level of functionality to what you would find in any XML editing tool, such as Corel Corp.'s XMetaL. Before you create or save an XML document, you need to develop a schema, a document that defines your XML elements, using a third-party tool such as XMetaL.

You can associate a schema with a document fairly easily by creating a document, selecting XML Document in the New Documents task pane, and choosing the schema you want.

With a bit of hunting and pecking, technical users can easily learn how to access and name an XML schema and associate it with the current document. Other users will likely require some training. Once you associate the schema with the document, the document elements, as defined in the schema, appear in the XML Structure task pane. Tag viewing is turned on by default, but you can shut that off if you like; we found it easier to use with the tags displayed.

You add elements to the document by clicking an element at the bottom of the task pane. Some are open-ended, meaning you can enter anything, and others have predefined choices. While entering data, you can check the validity of the content by watching the task pane. A yellow X means you didn't enter valid information.

Entering text into an XML document this way will require a substantial investment of resources to create schemas for your department's needs.

Collaboration is the point

SharePoint is Microsoft's Web-based collaboration environment, and company officials worked to integrate

its services into Office 2003 applications. It allows users to work together online, regardless of their locations. This version includes the ability to see who is online and provides some ability to search for and find the right resources for a job, a must in any large agency. It also includes some document-management features, such as check-in/check-out capabilities.

If you need this type of collaboration, then SharePoint is likely a good choice. It goes to a new level with Office 2003, with automated collaboration features built into Outlook and easy access to SharePoint work spaces from Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can send documents to a SharePoint server, or you can upload documents from the SharePoint site.

From an Office application, you simply access the Shared Workspace command from the Tools menu in Word, Excel or PowerPoint. Microsoft officials wisely used a consistent design across all three products. You enter the URL of the SharePoint Web site to create a shared document work space on an existing SharePoint server. SharePoint requires that the technology staff set up the spaces ahead of time and give employees the proper access information, including the URL, user name and password, to access the SharePoint space.

You can set up a project in SharePoint directly from Outlook by attaching a document, clicking the new Attachment Options button, clicking the Share Attachments option and entering the URL for the SharePoint space. Instead of sending a static attachment, which is your other choice, this links the attachment to the SharePoint space and adds all names on the e-mail distribution list. Any time a user changes the document, it is saved to the shared space. All members receive a dialog box prompting them to update their local version the next time they open the document.

SharePoint also enables you to assign tasks from the shared-document task pane without sending an e-mail message. And you can review documents online, check them in and check them out, and perform other management functions. For the most part, integration is well designed, although you may experience some growing pains with setting up the server and incorporating employees into the general process.

Keep in mind that this fairly easy process may take a change in mind-set and will likely require some training. If you already have a management infrastructure for documents or content, or you are using a different collaboration tool, you may find that some of these functions are redundant and therefore may not justify the upgrade's cost.

Other goodies

Microsoft officials have included other benefits for enterprise and government customers by providing ways to process metadata about Office documents, allowing customers to integrate more smoothly with an existing

document- or content-management system.

From the File menu, you can save a document to a document library on an external system or add metadata information to the Document Properties dialog box. Your document- or content-

management system can store and index documents based on the metadata, making it easier to locate them in the future or to combine them with a document-retention system.

Microsoft officials have also further developed document security by establishing a digital rights management framework that would allow employees to, among other things, put an expiration date on a document or remove printing privileges, a feature that should appeal to government workers who want to control access to sensitive documents.

Beyond this, though, there haven't been major changes to the programs in the Office suite, with the exception of Outlook, which now includes long-overdue spam protection and a welcome overhaul of the interface so it's easier and faster to use.

Last word

Microsoft officials have made some impressive changes to the Office system, but they may not be enough to warrant the cost and pain of upgrading.

If you need XML compatibility or want to take advantage of Office 2003's integration with SharePoint, the upgrade is a no-brainer. Otherwise, the expense may be tough to

justify.

Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at rsmiller@techdochelp.com.

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Key components of Microsoft Office 2003:

Access 2003 — Adds more functionality for organizing, accessing and sharing database information.

Excel 2003 — Enhanced to bring even more business data into spreadsheets.

Outlook 2003 — Offers a package for managing e-mail, tasks, schedules and calendars.

Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager — Designed to help firms manage business contacts, track sales opportunities and run reports.

PowerPoint 2003 — Includes new tools to help users create, present and collaborate on

presentations.

Publisher 2003 — Lets users design, create and publish professional marketing and communications materials in-house.

Word 2003 — Includes functions for better communications and information sharing.

This edition includes more support for Extensible Markup Language to improve data sharing and information rights management, which gives users control over who can open, copy and print information created in other Office programs.

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