A Look at Microsoft Office 2003 Beta 2

On March 10, Microsoft released beta 2 of its Microsoft Office 2003 suite of applications under the confusing moniker Microsoft Office System Beta 2 Kit 2003. In addition to the new name, Office 2003 Beta 2 includes two new applications--Office InfoPath 2003 and Office OneNote 2003--and a host of new functionality. Here's what's new in beta 2.

New Branding Because Microsoft refers to the Office family of applications as a "comprehensive, integrated system," the company is renaming the full package Microsoft Office System. The company has also rebranded the applications in Office System, incorporating the word "Office" in their titles. The Office System family of products includes Office 2003, which consists of Microsoft Office Word 2003, Microsoft Office Excel 2003, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003, Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, and Microsoft Office Access 2003; Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server "v2.0" (now part of Windows Server 2003) and Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services; Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003; Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003; Microsoft Office OneNote 2003; Microsoft Office Publisher 2003; Microsoft Office Visio 2003; and Microsoft Project 2003.

New Applications
Since the release of Office 2003 beta 1 last fall, Microsoft has added two new applications to the suite: InfoPath 2003 (code-named XDocs) and OneNote 2003 (code-named Scribbler). InfoPath 2003 is the more confusing of the two programs. Essentially, it's a forms application with an Office look and feel that lets administrators and developers create front ends to XML-driven back-end servers. This approach offers a way for typical Office users to interact with heterogeneous data sources on the back end without having to understand the peculiarities of the custom applications that you might use. XML support is fairly pervasive throughout Office 2003--you can even save Word documents and Excel spreadsheets as XML documents--but InfoPath 2003 is the most obvious attempt I've seen yet by any major vendor to complete the XML circle by providing users with a familiar front-end application that can tie together several XML data stores, if required. The big question is whether administrators will be able to use InfoPath 2003 to cobble together bulletproof forms for computer neophytes. I'll be looking more closely at this application in the future to find out.

The application I'm more excited about is OneNote 2003, which plugs a functionality hole for many Office users. Today, many people take notes in meetings by using pen and paper or a mobile computing device running Word, but both approaches have limitations. Pen and paper, obviously, require users to reenter any notes electronically if they want to use the notes to create corporate documents. Word documents are electronic, but Word wasn't designed for taking notes, and it doesn't have the note-taking niceties that pen and paper offers--for example, the ability to draw figures or enter notes at random spots on the page. OneNote 2003 offers both of these capabilities, along with Tablet PC digital ink handwriting support and a neat audio recording feature that ties together your handwritten or typewritten notes with any audio you record. So when you take notes and record a meeting simultaneously, you can go to a point in your notes and hear the audio that was recorded at that moment. Because I spend at least 50 percent of my time taking notes during live and telephone meetings, I intend to use this cool feature frequently.

New and Updated Capabilities
Office 2003 Beta 2 includes an interesting new capability called Windows Rights Management (WRM) that helps you protect sensitive corporate data and other intellectual property. Available in Word 2003, Excel 2003, and Outlook 2003, this feature lets you set permissions rights on documents, spreadsheets, and email so that, for example, you can prevent an email recipient from printing, screen capturing, copying, or forwarding sensitive information. In my early tests with WRM technology, I've discovered a simple workaround, but the technology does work roughly as advertised: If you attempt to open a protected email message in Outlook, Outlook connects you to a WRM server to validate your permissions. If you attempt to open that message in another email client, the client won't open or display the message.

Outlook 2003 Beta 2 includes a new Bayesian-like spam filter, but I can't test it fully yet because the current version has problems handling IMAP email. Microsoft says it will fix this problem before the final release, but the filter works fine with POP3 and Microsoft Exchange Server accounts. Outlook 2003 Beta 2 also includes a more customizable Calendar module, although I wish Microsoft would support industry-standard iCalendar publish and subscribe functionality for non-Exchange users who want to share schedules.

Microsoft's collaboration services--SharePoint Portal Server "v.20" and Windows SharePoint Services--have matured dramatically in this release. The products now support Instant Messaging (IM) for realtime collaboration and offer better scalability and site views that are customized to each user. I don't know how organizations are using these Web-based document-collaboration site tools, but please drop me a line if you are.

FrontPage 2003 Beta 2 includes better support for third-party image-manipulation tools, a Visual Studio (VS)-like code editor with clean HTML capabilities that actually work, and support for Web Parts technology. This last feature lets developers cobble together functional sites by using prebuilt functional components.

I haven't had time to evaluate Office Visio 2003 Beta 2 or Project Beta 2, but I hope to soon, and my full review of Office 2003 Beta 2 should be available later this week on the SuperSite for Windows ( http://www.winsupersite.com ). Having said that, after spending a lot of time with the main Office 2003 applications during the past week, I don't see any major improvements beyond those described above, and a few of the applications--notably Outlook 2003 and FrontPage 2003--are prone to crash on the systems I've used. Office, of course, is a mature product family, and developers can do only so much to improve word processors and email applications. Whether Office 2003 is a must-have upgrade remains to be seen. I'll have to spend more time with the suite--excuse me, the system--before I can say.

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