It has been over two years since we previewed Office XP, but Microsoft has finally given us a glimpse of Office 2003. The finished version should be on the shelves by the end of July, but will it be worth the upgrade? The answer could be an emphatic 'yes' if you're a Tablet PC user, as Microsoft has just launched OneNote (see page 59), making full use of electronic ink. The company is also introducing InfoPath (see page 59) for designing electronic forms, with the flexibility of XML. The classic apps have also had their seen refurbishment, with Outlook (page 56) getting the most attention, and FrontPage and Publisher (page 58) a bit of a revamp.
Meanwhile, Word (page 54) has had a moderate overhaul, and PowerPoint, Access and Excel (page 55) have been slightly revised and tweaked.
As you'd expect, all the menus and toolbars have had a cosmetic makeover, with rounded toolbars and properly shaded icons. There are also more Task Panes, and some previously independent dialogs such as the Word Thesaurus have moved to these panes.
Big Changes – XML, SharePoint and IRM
One of the biggest changes is that Word and Excel can now load and save data in XML files. These can be fully formatted documents and spreadsheets, or just the XML data with the formatting provided by templates. IT departments are now able to create Word documents and Excel workbooks that capture data conforming to custom XML Schemas, and then pipe it through Web Services or BizTalk into back-end databases or workflow processes. Users get a familiar front-end tool, the data is validated against the XML Schema on input, and managers get current data whenever they want. But XML isn't restricted to Word and Excel – Access can also now import and export XML data, and FrontPage is able to create data-driven Websites from XML data sources.
Next we come to SharePoint Services, which provides document and meeting workspaces, check-in/check-out and Live Attachment facilities. SharePoint will be a free add-on for Windows Server 2003, but you'll have to run Windows Server 2003 to be able to use it.
Finally, there's IRM, which allows you to secure a document and only authorise certain people to read it. Those people are, in turn, not allowed to forward, print or copy the document or any part of it. You can also mark documents with an expiry date, after which only you may open them. It doesn't matter how users get the secured documents, the data they contain is encrypted. You only get a key to decrypt a document if your email address is in the list of intended recipients, your Windows is secured and authenticated and you can access your company's key server, which (of course...) must be running Windows Server 2003.
There are also plenty of minor changes under the surface. Smart Tags, for example, have more possibilities such as cascading menus. And when you need help, Office will search online as well as the local Help files.
There's also the new Research Task Pane, where you can search for words and phrases in a range of reference books and online databases. The current offerings feature dictionaries and several paid-for services including an encyclopaedia, a magazine clippings service and company info services.
There's also a translation service to and from many languages, including less obvious combinations such as German to Spanish or Russian to Korean. Microsoft promises that the services available through the Research Task Pane will be relevant to people both globally and locally wherever they are in the world, although whether this will happen remains to be seen.
While a lot of work has gone into this release, single or home users don't have much to get excited about in Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Access. So Office 2003 isn't going to be a worthwhile upgrade unless you're tempted by the improvements to Outlook, FrontPage and Publisher, or maybe you'll want the new OneNote app. However, XML support, SharePoint integration and InfoPath will grab the attention of corporate IT departments eager to streamline business processes, and this is what Microsoft is aiming for. Those upgrading from Office 97 or 2000 will get much more than those upgrading from XP, but as it will only run on Windows 2000 (SP 3) or XP, you need to ensure your PC's up to the job too.