Office 2003 Update

By Eric Grevstad | Posted June 20, 2003

There are shipped and shrink-wrapped software packages that aren't as well and widely known as Microsoft Office 2003, the release due later this year that will serve as both an upgrade to Redmond's dominant productivity suite and cornerstone of a new "Microsoft Office System" of XML-based desktop, server, Web-service, and enterprise-database interoperations.

Office 2003's slow move from vaporware to solidity advanced in March with the distribution of half a million Beta 2 copies. In April, the company released an update with news of the six different editions or bundles to be sold through various retail, OEM (new PC pre-install), and corporate-license-only channels, and more details on early expectations versus the likely reality of Office 2003's XML document formats and cross-platform compatibility.

Since then, Microsoft has confirmed that March's Beta 2 — which many users have reported yields more bugs and crashes than December 2002's Beta 1 — won't be the last prerelease version after all. An "Office System 2003 Beta 2 Technical Refresh" will be available for download sometime around the end of June.

As for the official debut of Office 2003, Microsoft still hasn't set a date, but its public statements have shifted from "shipping this summer" to "still on track to finish the product [i.e., release it to manufacturing] in late summer." The Microsoft Watch Web site speculates that may translate into the actual appearance of boxed copies at an Office developer's conference in Palm Springs in October.

Aren't All Web Sites Data-Driven?
Microsoft has also trickled out additional news about Office System 2003 applications — most recently, declaring that its FrontPage HTML editor has been not just upgraded but "reinvented to support a wide range of capabilities for building dynamic, XML-based, data-driven Web sites" while retaining its ease of use compared to elite Web authoring programs.

Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 — remember, Word, Excel, and the rest of the gang now carry the word Office as part of their names — will be the first commercially available, what-you-see-is-what-you-get Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation (XSLT) editor, letting users work with live data to create dynamic sites for sharing information on the Web.

As with much else in the Microsoft Office System, this marketing lingo translates into real-time integration of back-end or corporate database info: XSLT "data views" provide reporting tools for sorting, filtering, and conditionally formatting data from XML, Web-service, or OLE DB (database) data sources, with no need for programming with server-side scripting tools such as Visual C#, Visual Basic Scripting Edition, ColdFusion, or Java. Indeed, FrontPage 2003 drops earlier versions' FrontPage Server Extensions in favor of connections to Windows Server 2003 and the Windows SharePoint Services collaborative-site- and application-development platform.

Webmasters will be able to connect multiple data sources and use the results of a single query to filter the data supplied by an XML Web service, then save the setup as a "Web package" for easy reuse. FrontPage 2003 will ship with prebuilt Web packages including a Weblog or blogging solution that Microsoft claims can be set up with a couple of clicks.

There are non-XML-related enhancements, too, such as pixel-precise layout tables, improved graphics-format compatibility, and browser and resolution reconciliation to target specific browsers and screen sizes. A new split-screen view will show code and design panes simultaneously, while Quick Tag Selector and Editor features and a sitewide, tag- and attribute-level, find-and-replace function will help polish page code.

Built-in scripting shortcuts, dubbed Behaviors, are also new. As with the rest of the Office 2003 applications and bundles, neither a ship date nor price has been announced for FrontPage 2003.

Microsoft Wants To Be Your Best Buddy
The other week, Microsoft also announced that its Real-Time Communications Server, the instant messaging (IM) platform long awaited under the codename "Greenwich," would be formally named Microsoft Office Real-Time Communications Server 2003 and tap into Office Outlook 2003 and Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 to optimize "live" enterprise communications.

Assuming, of course, your company springs for the full-boat Microsoft desktop and server infrastructure setup, whenever you receive an Outlook 2003 e-mail, you'll be able to see whether the sender is online and available for an instantaneous follow-up or IM conversation. This "presence" capability will let you decide how to contact a coworker so as to minimize phone tag or e-mail lag — knowing that Jane Doe is at her desk, you can call her or send her an instant message; when she's away, you can send an e-mail without wasting time trying the phone or IM first.

While its ship date may slip, every week brings Microsoft Office 2003 into clearer focus: the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to turn Microsoft's ownership of the business desktop into the air supply of enterprise IT, joining an array of 100-percent Microsoft servers (don't even think of saying the L-word) in providing state-of-the-seamless integration of spreadsheets, documents, e-mails, intranets, Web sites, and corporate databases into a single knowledge base.

Small and medium businesses will get a few goodies, such as the Business Contact Manager add-in for Outlook, but a lot less attention overall — witness the proprietary, quasi-DOC and -XLS flavors of XML, rather than truly open, customer-definable XML schemas and file formats, to be found in all but the heavyweight Professional Edition. Will they also get a lot less reason to upgrade from Office XP or, more likely, Office 2000? Stay tuned.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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