Microsoft ships Office 2000

Microsoft Corp. last week announced the official release of its Office 2000 desktop application suite, which company officials say will offer government users a substantial upgrade to a commercial off-the-shelf product with new collaborative features and easier enterprisewide deployment.

Government agencies that have enterprise agreements for Office are lining up to receive the upgrade, which includes Microsoft Word, Excel spreadsheet software, Outlook e-mail and personal information manager, PowerPoint for presentations, the Access database program and the Publisher desktop publishing application.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Defense Logistics Agency are among the agencies ready to install the new suite. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency and the Agriculture Department also have expressed interest, according to employees of Microsoft partner companies that participated in a conference Microsoft hosted in Washington, D.C., last week.

USGS made a "monumental" decision to standardize with Office 2000, and the agency is eagerly awaiting its installation disks, said Donna Scholz, chief of the Information Services Office at USGS.

Last year, a USGS user committee evaluated Office 97 and recommended adopt-ing the market-dominant productivity suite. Now that Office 2000 is out, the agency plans to skip Office 97 and move directly to the new version, Scholz said.

USGS has about 10,000 employees at about 240 locations across the country providing scientific information on mapping and on the nation's water, biological and mineral resources. The agency has been using a variety of desktop applications, including Microsoft desktop software, leading to compatibility problems, Scholz said.

"We were finding we had made quite an investment in Microsoft products, either the [Office] suite or modules, and we made a business decision to standardize," she said. Scholz said there has been little negative feedback since the decision was made.

Office 2000's hottest new feature is support for Hypertext Markup Language. All documents can be saved in HTML as a file format, so a document created by one employee can be made available on the Internet or an intranet, and another employee can read it or make changes using any browser, Microsoft officials said.

Microsoft aims for the new feature to "tear down the walls" between knowledge workers and the information they need, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said in a presentation telecast to the Washington conference. Rather than just a spreadsheet and a word processor, Ballmer said Office 2000 offers ways to help workers collaborate on documents and share information.

The new HTML feature offers great potential to government agencies, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., San Jose, Calif. "When you think about government documents, they are almost always collaborative," Bajarin said.

The ability to merge calendars and group schedules and put documents into HTML are features that a government work group would find enticing, he said.

Government users could use the collaborative feature to conduct an ad hoc discussion of a request for proposal, said Chris Barker, principal technology specialist with Microsoft Federal Systems. Another feature would allow users to be notified every time a document is revised.

Every government agency has a World Wide Web server, and many have internal servers to support intranets, Barker said.

For now, however, the USGS will not use the new collaboration features because the agency is concerned about proprietary aspects of the software and wants time to evaluate the HTML code that is generated by Office 2000, Scholz said.

Some analysts have said some features of Office 2000 do not function as well with non-Microsoft browsers, but Barker said Microsoft is not trying to force users to switch to its browser. "You can use the browser of your choice, but we leverage [Internet Explorer 5]," he said, adding that certain pieces of the browser ship with Office 2000 in order to facilitate some of the new features.

USGS has set Oct. 1, 2000, as the target for agencywide deployment of Office 2000, but the agency will not use Outlook as its e-mail client, Scholz said. Instead, it will use Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes because it functions better when accessing legacy databases, she said.

It is rare to find organizations rejecting Outlook in the private sector, said Mark Levitt, research director for collaborative computing at International Data Corp. (IDC). "They have decided to stop fighting and support Outlook" as their e-mail client, and that represents a sort of creeping dominance that is a detriment to maintaining competition, Levitt said. Wherever Outlook becomes the leading e-mail and collaboration client software, there will be pressure on the organization to standardize on Microsoft in the back office as well, he said.

"The danger is that homogeneity on the desktop will spread to homogeneity on the back end," Levitt said. "We know who wins in that case. It's Microsoft."

Two other key features of Office 2000 are aimed at easing management head-aches. IT managers can deploy Office 2000 centrally across a global network with an unlimited number of custom configurations, Barker said. That means the manager easily can block a particular group's access to applications they should not be using. The manager also can deploy applications as they are needed.

Another plus for government organizations operating outside the United States, such as the State Department, is that the suite has a single code base for all language versions, so it is not necessary to maintain dozens of different versions.

"Microsoft is really paying attention to the people who deploy Office and the people who maintain it," said Mary Wardley, manager of personal applications at IDC. "Things like that can make a big difference for an organization operating globally."

There are other features designed to increase users' comfort level. For example, Office 2000's menus and toolbars automatically will remember a user's most frequent selection from a menu and reorder the menu with the frequently used ones at the top.

Microsoft also has added a feature called "collect and copy," which lets a user store up to 12 blocks of text on a clipboard and paste them into a document individually, an improvement on having to cut and paste each item separately.

A key improvement to the PowerPoint application is a new tri-pane view to make writing a presentation easier. The three-part view shows the user's outline, the slide and the notes so that the user does not have to toggle from one to another.

Office 2000 is available on the General Services Administration schedule. Retail prices range from $499 for the standard version to $799 for the premium version for new users.

Upgrades range from $249 for the standard version to $399 for the premium version. The suite also is available on several contract vehicles.

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