By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Tuesday, October 26, 2003; 3:00pm EST
Office System Professional 2003, is touted to increase productivity and efficiency, promote stronger collaboration and increase interoperability. It also celebrates the latest in a long line of suite revisions literally spanning the history of personal computers.
This review is centered around the Office Professional suite, and excludes many of the other products that were also introduced as part of the overall Office "System" such as Live Meeting, FrontPage 2003, Project 2003, Visio 2003 and so on. They may be featured in separate product reviews in the near future at Home Business Journal. Server related elements of the system such as InfoPath, Share Point and Exchange were also not included. Note that some of the new, mostly collaborative, functionality of the Office Professional Suite require these server components.
After reviewing the marketing material, attending the launch party, talking with people involved in the marketing of the product, and ultimately use of the product - it was quite apparent that a bulk of the innovation with this release was concentrated on the Outlook component of Office Professional. Strangely absent for the most part from marketing material and speeches were any mention of significant changes to Word, Excel or PowerPoint; and especially Access or Publisher. It is clear this release is more about the communications and sharing aspect of this "system" rather than specific enhancements to individual applications, with exception to Outlook which, in it's self, is communications and sharing.
Installation of the software was a complete no-brainer from it's single CD installation. Enter your software key, tell it the components you want to install, and off it goes! Activation of the product has been further streamlined to a single mouse click and a quick check with Microsoft to confirm you aren't part of an International piracy ring.
Quickly skimming through Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher, there are little if any real noteworthy additions to these components. Word and Excel allows entire or partial locking and control over documents and their distribution through its new IRM (Information Rights Management) feature. This will most likely help the Office System to combat the staggering growth of Adobe's PDF format. Excel allows manipulation of XML data sources to produce a variety of results such as tables and graphs. PowerPoint allows packaging of presentations onto a CD, great for doing presentations on the road. And Publisher, is well, Publisher, with an extended number of "Master Design Sets"; improved industry standard process-color support; and ability to create everything from email newsletters to DVD labels. Access 2003 improved error checking by pointing out common errors in reports and forms; and now employs auto properties updating between tables, forms and reports.
Things started to get real interesting when I finally got to crack out Outlook 2003. Upon first glance, even people highly familiar with the previous version, will not even recognize the 2003 edition. You are instead welcomed with a highly intuitive three column layout that is infinitely more eye friendly and space conscious. Your folders and various program functions occupy the first column, the second column handsomely displays your emails broken down by whatever criteria you desire, date, subject, name, etc. By date, it places partitions between "Toady's Mail", "Yesterdays Mail", "Last Weeks Mail". It's a god's send. The third column in my mind, really helps, a vertical rather than horizontal look at email message content. Instead of endless scrolling with the previous version, you are treated to what almost looks like a novel sized page representing the email you are reading. Very clever layout. It is not without its "adjustment time", but after a week of use, it is safe to say it is very pleasing to work with.
Outlook doesn't stop there... Priority flagging of emails allows you to mark emails for future attention, based on a variety of different flag colors you can apply to emails. The search has also been enhanced allowing you to look at commonly searched for email as easily as clicking on a pre-defined search folder already containing the results of such searches as "All my unread mail", or "All mail marked urgent". This applies to mail in all of your folders, preventing you from having to do a goose chase through all your many folders. Remote email access can now also be done by HTTP protocol, even without a VPN, handy for travelers on the road that are looking to skip any "complications" away from work.
Finally, the much needed addition of a variable level junk email filter finally makes its debut. Although it has successfully rid me of a lot of spam, it is by no means perfect, allowing at least a quarter of very obvious junk mail though. However, for a built in junk mail checker, it seems sufficient in simply "assisting" to clear up the "definitely junk" email. Other junk mail filters used in the past were a bit over zealous and also decided correspondence from clients were junk mail too - I'd much prefer this approach.
The biggest keyword by far of all the marketing material was "collaboration". Many features have been implemented to take advantage of new technologies for sharing documents between co-workers. Keeping in mind however, that a bulk of these features necessitate the use of additional Share Point Server software and other server technologies in order to work. This ease of sharing is facilitated through something called "Document Workspaces". Share Point generates on demand temporary intranet spaces where group members can work together in a version controlled manner. It simplifies the process of revisions, and is a darn site better than the "shared server directory on the server" or "email me your revisions" approach. Something like this could be especially helpful in such circumstances as creating an RFP response, product documentation, or where there are multiple people involved in the completed product.
An Office System component that was launched in conjunction with Office Professional 2003 was OneNote, the highly touted note taking application. OneNote allows seemingly random notes and ideas to be jotted down, and broken down into folders, pages and sub pages. I was particularly impressed with the simplicity and design of the application. It had the ease of use I always felt Lotus Notes should have had from the very beginning. Notes always lacked the interface refinement this certainly has even in its first revision. The audio note taking was also a welcome feature of the program, as its use in office meetings and even for personal reasons was apparent from the get go. It also takes advantage of the Tablet PC platform by allowing direct hand writing on the OneNote pages, which is turns into objects which can be moved within or between pages and converted to computer text through handwriting recognition. However, to my disbelief, OneNote is a separate application from even the highest grade of the suite, Office Professional. This certainly seemed like a candidate for inclusion into their suite. Although it is designed well with its attractive interface and simplicity of use, it still in essence, simply lets you jot down notes and organize them. And to add insult to injury this glorified notepad will set you back $299CAD per license, almost half the price of the entire Office Professional license. That's a lot of clipboards, paper and ball point pens! It may be difficult for typical small to midsize business to justify $300 per worker to take down notes in meetings.
Should your organization consider Office System Professional 2003? New licenses for your organization should definitely be 2003. It's backward compatibility, XML handling and excellent email client are worth it in its self over older versions. Companies with Office XP or Office 2000 that are considering upgrading will have a hard time to justify the upgrade costs, as the return on investment may not be strong enough if they do not take advantage of their collaboration features (which require even more investment in server technologies, deployment and training). While users of versions 97 and below are strongly recommended to upgrade to the more stable and feature rich environment of 2003, especially if looking to embrace the collaborative functions touted in this version.
The performance of the applications is solid, loading times for all of the applications on our test box (Pentium 4 3GHz, 1GB memory) were neck snapping fast, with the splash screens given only fractions of a second to display before the programs are ready for use. Performance within the applications was also pleasing and seemed slightly faster than previous versions, with the exception to Outlook on occasion when accessing email folders it has not visited in a while.
System requirements are a Pentium III 233MHz processor (a Pentium 4 is highly recommended); 128MB of memory; up to 400MB of drive space, depending on the edition of Office you chose; SVGA graphics card and display; Windows 2000, XP or above operating system.
Office System Profession 2003 has a recommended retail price of $759CAD for the full version and $489CAD for the upgrade. It includes Access 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager, PowerPoint 2003, Publisher 2003 and Word 2003. For volume and enterprise licenses, InfoPath 2003 is inclusive of the Office Professional suite. It is available immediately, and was launched October 21, 2003.
PROS - Excellent upgrade of Outlook, improving on some of the shortcomings perceived in previous versions. Continued small refinements and adjustment to make this a truly integrated package. Full XML support across the suite. Continuity and interface consistency between applications continues to be a strong point of the suite. Ease of exchanging data between the applications is excellent. Effortless to install and upgrade from previous versions.
CONS - Many core programs with room for improvement enjoyed only minor tweaks and changes (Word, Access, PowerPoint, Access). Lack of OneNote as part of Pro package and its steep individual pricing.
About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web site design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.
http://www. viscaconsulting. com/