Office XP gets mixed reception from feds

Microsoft Corp. launched its Office XP product last week in separate events all over the country, including one at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., that drew more than 5,000 people.

Despite the hype, many federal customers say they're in no rush to upgrade.

The U.S. Air Force and one intelligence agency are already using Office XP, but other agencies, such as the General Accounting Office, are taking a "wait-and-see" approach.

To upgrade an existing Office suite to the basic version of Office XP will cost $239, or $479 to install a new product. But under Microsoft's new Software Assurance program that goes into effect Oct. 1, if an organization requires a Microsoft Premier Support contract or renews it, it must have all of its installed base of server and desktop licenses enrolled in the program or face higher prices.

Office XP, like Office 2000, includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access database, Outlook personal information manager and other PC products. Microsoft will continue to support Office 2000, but will no longer sell new licenses.

Office XP also offers new features that government users should find particularly beneficial, said Megan McKenna, a technology specialist at Microsoft Federal.

For example, smart tags will appear on the screen while users work and offer AutoCorrect, AutoFormat and Paste options.

"The Air Force is doing smart tag development today," McKenna said; one tag looks up definitions for acronyms, for example. And Lockheed Martin Corp. has two government customers interested in its smart tags, she said.

Microsoft has also increased the default security and offers a custom installation wizard to help customers set up or modify settings on the software. Office XP has new anti-virus tools as well, to help control team security settings to prevent virus attacks and avoid downtime, McKenna said.

SharePoint Team Services, meanwhile, is designed to make it easier for Office XP users to share information between applications. The software helps users without technical expertise set up a Web site to post, share or discuss information.

"So many of our government customers are so huge and have so many different teams that no single Web site is enough — each team needs their own," McKenna said, and that is especially useful for geographically dispersed groups.

Historically, users have skipped subsequent versions of technologies because the new features just aren't worth the money, said Michael Silver, a research director at Gartner Inc. "Office XP is not a big change from that," he said. "There are new features, but there's a tough time figuring out why you're spending the money to upgrade."

Still, Silver said, some agencies may be compelled to buy licenses before the October deadline to avoid spending more money later on and to have plenty of time to test the software.

The Energy Department is one of them. "As of right now, [we will] purchase XP licenses for new equipment, but deploy [Office 2000 Professional] with new PCs until we've had the opportunity to test it out," said Howard Landon, acting chief information officer at Energy. "Once we feel comfortable, we will deploy XP...under the licenses already purchased." GAO will stick with the Office 2000 suite because "the timing just wasn't right," said Tony Cicco, GAO's CIO.

"We've made it a policy, especially with Microsoft software, not to take the release right out of the box," he said. "We will look at it once it's out and stable."

John Linn, Microsoft business development manager for GTSI Corp., said he'd heard similar reasoning from some of their government customers who are "holding off until they make the first patch."

The Customs Service plans to stick with its existing suite of Microsoft products. And the Navy and Marine Corps are moving users to Windows 2000 as part of the $6.9 billion Navy Marine Corps Intranet program. n Diane Frank, Bill Murray and Judi Hasson contributed to this article.

What's new in Office XP

Microsoft Corp.'s Office XP features more than 60 new tools that work with all the applications in the software suite. A brief look at five of them:

* Document/Application Recovery — Offers a safety net of sorts, allowing users to save their work when an application crashes.

* Digital Signatures — Enables users to digitally sign entire documents and determine if those documents have been altered.

* Speech Recognition — Enables most Office applications to respond to verbal commands.

* Handwriting Recognition — Accepts handwritten notes from handheld devices into Office applications.

* Task Panes — Offers users quick access to commands and other application information.

Source: Microsoft Office XP product guide

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