Time to Upgrade?

This might be the year for organizations still running Microsoft Office 97 or Outlook 98 to finally upgrade. Microsoft will end all assisted support for Office 97 and Outlook 98 in January 2004, offering only Web-based self-help support after that date. Many administrators might not realize that, even though Office 97 support continues for a few more months, Outlook 97 is already an unsupported product, its assisted support lifecycle having ended in 2001.

Perhaps to encourage organizations with Office 97 to accelerate their upgrades, Microsoft recently published a 43-page white paper about migrating Office 97 to Office XP. The paper addresses all three communities with a potential interest in the migration: users who might see differences as they go about their day-to-day activities, administrators planning and supporting the migration, and developers concerned about the continued viability of their corporate applications. Tables summarize the feature differences between Office 97 and Office XP applications and even show where particular menu commands have moved in the most recent version. For someone preparing a justification for a migration, these tables are a gold mine. Help desks, too, will be delighted to have a guide to where various menu commands have moved so that they can reassure befuddled users that the features haven't disappeared, they've just moved to a new neighborhood.

The paper's authors contend that Office XP is technically superior to its predecessors not just because of improved features and better performance but also because the built-in Office Error Reporting tool can help track down and eliminate many bugs that would have been difficult to isolate in earlier Office versions. In addition, the reporting tool has helped eliminate almost all memory leaks and get fixes into service packs faster. And, the authors say, Office XP shipped with fewer serious bugs than any earlier version.

The white paper authors also cite improved installation tools, found in the "Microsoft Office XP Resource Kit," and better international support. Calling Office XP more secure than earlier versions, the authors write that the security flaws that do exist "are defensible and can easily be mitigated through other means." Strangely, though, the paper omits all mention of attachment blocking, the Outlook "object model guard," and the fact that unpublished and "one-off" Outlook forms won't run code in Outlook 2002. These items certainly are key factors that developers and Help desk staff must consider when moving from Outlook 97 to Outlook 2002.

The paper makes a general recommendation that developers explore late binding (i.e., declaring an object as an Object rather than as an explicit data type) as one technique that can help minimize problems for in-house applications that must run on both Office XP and Office 97. The authors also note that the inspections that some antivirus programs perform on Office documents can slow down some custom macros and recommend an upgrade to the most recent version of your antivirus software.

The move from Outlook 97 to Outlook 2002 should be simpler than going from Outlook 97 to either Outlook 2000 or Outlook 98. Those intermediate versions require an understanding of the separate Corporate/Workgroup and Internet Mail Only modes for mail configuration. But, like Outlook 97, Outlook 2002 has just one mechanism for setting up email accounts. Tools such as the Preview Pane and Rules Wizard that required separate installations in Outlook 97 are now integrated into the product.

Some organizations, having seen the new user interface in Outlook 11, might be wondering whether to skip Office XP entirely and wait for the midyear release of Office 11. However, many large organizations won't be able to plan, test, and implement a full Office 11 migration before Office 97 support runs out. Instead, they might want to go with Office XP now and, under the Software Assurance (SA) plan, buy licenses that let them upgrade to Office 11 those users or departments who can really benefit from the new features in that version.

"Office 97 to Microsoft Office XP Migration Issues" white paper

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