Is Office 2003 worth the upgrade?

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Windows Office 2003 is slated to launch October 21, and it's already available to volume buyers. But one question looms - the same question, in fact, that hovers over every Microsoft release. Is the upgrade really worth it?

The CRN Test Centre took a quick look at Office 2003's features and the opportunities it affords solution providers.

One of the most significant developments in Office 2003 is the use of embedded XML throughout, which makes the suite an excellent developer's tool and allows data to be shared easily among applications and users.

Developing department-level applications has never been easier now that Microsoft has introduced InfoPath 2003, a client-driven XML form editor that integrates with XML-driven data sources in a variety of ways. InfoPath can query XML-driven databases and has a database wizard that ports Access 2003 tables and converts them into XML forms.

The tool also preserves database schemas, so users don't have to reinvent the wheel when integrating their database-driven applications. In the case of SQL Server, database connections are driven via OLE DB.

InfoPath forms integrate easily with SharePoint Services, so developers can make their Access applications available to multiple users across networks without having to publish internal Access forms to the Web.

Since InfoPath includes automatic offline caching, data and forms from Access databases can be taken on the road and downloaded automatically. InfoPath is backward-compatible with Access 2000.

Web services, too, can tie into InfoPath as long as they're discoverable via UDDI, and the UDDI lookup can be done without any coding.

But InfoPath isn't perfect yet. SQL joins can't be used because primary keys generated in Access can be replicated or created outside the Access environment.

Essentially, a many-to-one relationship violation can occur between tables, and conversion of Access forms into InfoPath forms is not yet always possible. Also, InfoPath chokes up when handling repeating fields in Access forms.

As for FrontPage 2003, it's much improved and should no longer be considered an HTML editor for novice users. Test Center engineers predict that the program will now give Macromedia Dreamweaver a run for its money.

Users can create XML data-driven Web sites in four easy steps and publish them to SharePoint Services sites with little understanding of XML or XSLT. Data inside XML files are kept live because XML files are not copied into the pages but are linked to databases instead.

Web services also work well with FrontPage, but they have to be published to a catalogue before data can be pulled from them. Users can hook up a Web service to a FrontPage site easily--in just four--steps. Another impressive FrontPage feature is the conditional formatting task pane, which controls what is viewable on a page. Users can determine what's viewable by highlighting content and determining what data can be put on a page based on field values in a conditional query. No coding is required to do this.

But some of the most noticeable changes are in the setup and usability of Outlook, and engineers were very impressed with the updates.

The Microsoft team made an effort to design the application around the way people interact with their information. Users, for example, can organise their e-mail by days of the week or by a specific line of discussion.

If a conversation among company employees is taking place, the participants can sort through e-mails by subject line, content or properties to keep track of the conversation.

Also, e-mail can be prioritised with coloured flags, and users can create a follow-up folder where e-mails are placed by default.

Test Centre engineers liked the fact that most of Outlook's features don't need to be turned on by the user. Also, the new navigation pane combines what was formerly the content pane and menu. On the whole, the Outlook experience has been dramatically simplified.

PowerPoint has been upgraded as well. The application now includes a thesaurus, supports Ink and smart tags and offers better multimedia support with full-screen video.

Word and Excel are embedded deeply with XML, and the GUI is different now. It looks as if Microsoft has gone back to basics. And users can send a fax from any Office application.

Test Centre engineers were very impressed with a new application called OneNote, which is useful not only for Tablet PC users, who can take advantage of its pen input and Ink capability, but for everyone else.

With OneNote, information can be organised and retrieved regardless of format. Typed text, handwritten notes or diagrams, recorded audio and graphics can be manipulated and easily tied together.

The new Office suite also includes Information Rights Management, or IRM, a file-level protection technology that allows document creators to limit how particular documents and e-mail messages are used throughout an organisation. IRM is included in every Office application.

On the whole, Test Centre engineers were very impressed with Office 2003 and recommend it highly to solution providers and their customers.

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