Office 2000: Looking sharp and ready to go

Microsoft Corp.'s Office - which overwhelmingly dominates the office suite market - has never focused on bells and whistles. Instead, the suite has made its reputation through tight integration of its core industry-leading applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access.

Office 2000, released June 10, plays down glitzy features and highlights enhancements in two primary areas: deployment tools and World Wide Web integration. Another welcome change, at least for administrators, was that we found Office 2000 to be surprisingly stable compared with initial releases of earlier versions. That means there will be fewer headaches and less staff time spent getting users up and running.

Administrators can choose from among four end-user versions of Office 2000. We looked at the Premium Edition, which includes Word 2000, Excel 2000, PowerPoint 2000, Access 2000, Outlook 2000, FrontPage 2000 and PhotoDraw 2000.

What many end users of Office 2000 will notice first is Outlook 2000, the suite's new contact manager/e-mail client.

In addition to nifty new features, such as the QuickFind Contact tool for quickly locating contact records, Outlook 2000 offers a basic set of tools for tracking contact activities, such as e-mail, appointments and tasks. It's a snap to attach appointments and tasks to contacts, and e-mail messages that are sent to contacts are automatically attached. To see all the activities related to a contact, all you need to do is click on the Activities tab in the contact form. Even e-mail that has been archived in a new folder is tracked.

A Window on the Web

Outlook's new Internet capabilities are its most impressive feature. You can access Web pages directly through Outlook's display window instead of having to call up your Web browser. You can search the Web simply by clicking on the Search the Web tool in the toolbar. Once you've called up the page you want, right-click on it, drag it to Outlook's navigation bar, release the mouse and select Outlook Bar Shortcut to Web Page. Then all it will take in the future is a single click to open frequently visited sites without leaving Outlook. If you use Internet Explorer as your Web browser, when you work in Outlook you'll find your IE "favorites" already listed in an Outlook pull-down menu.

Another nice new feature is the ability to save Outlook calendars as Web pages, a process that can come in handy if you're using your Web site to coordinate the activities of groups of users. Those wanting to do group scheduling over the Web will appreciate Outlook 2000's enhanced support for the iCalendar standard. Instead of just being able to look at other users' free and busy time - as was supported by Outlook 97 - Outlook 2000 can handle all aspects of iCalendar, such as meeting requests and receipts.

Tighter integration with the Web also is highlighted in the other applications of Office 2000. The suite now offers direct support for Hypertext Markup Language. Word, in fact, has been turned into a full-fledged HTML editor, enabling you to open and save files in a host of document formats including text and HTML. Word also supports Extensible Markup Language, which lets you store data that can't be displayed in HTML, such as document summaries, so that the data is available when you reopen the document in Word.

The program also offers automatic link-checking during saves and a Web preview that displays a document in HTML.

PowerPoint, Microsoft's presentation program, comes with a library of "themes" - templates predesigned for Web page presentations. And Access, the suite's database program, includes wizards for configuring the program to serve data to Web pages.

If you standardize your department on Internet Explorer and Microsoft's Internet Information Server, you can enjoy the benefits of even more Web functionality. Once you've installed the new Office Server Extensions, users can collaborate on documents via the Web in real time, jointly viewing documents and making comments.

A Friendlier Interface

While at first glance it may seem to users that little has changed in the suite's major applications, a number of enhancements lurk just beneath the surface.

The menus in all the applications have been tweaked to display only the options used most often. If you hold the cursor over the menu for a moment or if you click on the expansion arrow at the bottom of the menu, the application automatically will pop up the full menu.

The File Open/Save dialog box also has been improved, most notably with the addition of a quick navigation panel and stronger search tools.

We also liked the new Office Clipboard. If you copy two or more selections to the clipboard without pasting them, the Office Clipboard will display an icon for each selection. Roll the mouse pointer over an icon, and it will display the first several words of the selection. The Clipboard supports HTML, making it easy to copy and paste selections between your browser and Office applications.

The Draw for Administrators

Outlook 2000 has at least as much to offer administrators as it does end users. The first and most obvious draw is the new Windows Installer.

Thanks to Windows Installer, Office is easier to deploy than ever. The new Installer enables administrators to control virtually every aspect of application configuration. And, unlike the installer that comes with Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect suite, administrators can edit configuration files instead of having to re-create them from scratch.

In creating an installation script, the administrator can decide where each Office component will reside: on the server or on the desktop. Administrators also can specify that applications and utilities be distributed for "Install on Demand." When the Install on Demand feature is used, an icon will be placed on the user's desktop letting them know that the application is available even though it is not yet installed. If the user clicks on the icon, the application will be installed from the server.

Configuration files can reside on the server instead of needing to be distributed to individual desktops, so deployment can be accomplished simply by sending an e-mail message to users instructing them to initiate the procedure.

To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade

The decision as to whether to upgrade your department to Office 2000 is a relatively easy one. If your office doesn't use HTML extensively, and if you don't need the new collaborative features available using the Web server extensions, you can save your money.

Microsoft has done a better job of ensuring two-way compatibility, giving administrators more flexibility in selective deployment. Specifically, Word 2000 files can be opened in Word 97. That means that if you upgrade only a select group of users - presumably those who work with Web features - to Office 2000, they still will be able to exchange files easily with those using Word 97.

If you decide to move up to Office 2000, rest assured that users will find a host of other welcome improvements. And administrators will find Office 2000 much easier to deploy and manage than earlier versions of the suite.

*****

Office 2000—Grade: B-plus

Microsoft Corp.

(425) 882-8080

www.microsoft.com

Price and Availability

Estimated retail price for new users is as follows: Office 2000 Premium, $799; Office 2000 Professional, $599; Office 2000 Small Business, $499; Office 2000 Standard, $499. Available on the GSA schedule and the open market. Upgrade pricing is lower.

Remarks

Microsoft Office 2000 offers world-class applications that are more tightly integrated than the competition. This version features enhanced compatibility and integration with the World Wide Web as well as stronger, more flexible deployment and management tools for administrators.

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