Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business Edition (Part I)

By Eric Grevstad | Posted July 22, 2003

With the new "Microsoft Office System" campaign emphasizing the suite's ties to Windows Server 2003 and Windows SharePoint Services — for XML integration of desktop documents and e-mails with intranets, company Web sites, and enterprise database info — it's hard not to conclude that this fall's Microsoft Office 2003 will be aimed more at corporate headquarters than home offices and small storefronts.

But Microsoft begs to differ: The software giant insists that Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003 will offer compelling reasons for 1- to 50-person or 24-PC businesses — companies with modest cash flows, no IT departments, and the five- to eight-year upgrade cycles that make them likely to have left well enough alone instead of switching from Office 97 or 2000 to Office XP — to invest in the new version.

Last week, in fact, Microsoft sent both a senior product manager and the latest Office 2003 Beta 2 Technical Refresh CDs to us to make the case for the upgrade (though its ship date and price are both still unannounced). Both sites will publish more detailed hands-on reports in the weeks ahead, but here's your first look at how Redmond hopes to convince small offices to embrace its newest productivity package — and resist the lower-priced Corel WordPerfect Office and free OpenOffice.org.

By Popular Demand: PowerPoint and Less Spam
As reported last April, Small Business Edition (SBE) — to be available at retail, preinstalled on new PCs, and via corporate volume licenses — will be one of six Office 2003 versions or bundles. Like the others, it'll require an up-to-date operating system — either Windows XP or Windows 2000 Service Pack 3 — and carry Microsoft's Product Activation registration and copy-protection requirements.

In addition to Word, Excel, Outlook, and Publisher, SBE 2003 includes PowerPoint — the presentations package omitted from previous Small Business bundles — and Business Contact Manager — a new add-in that gives Outlook some of the account- and sales-tracking capability of rivals like Act or GoldMine. The Access database, FrontPage Web-authoring, InfoPath XML forms-creation and -distribution, and OneNote note-taking and -organizing packages will be sold separately, as will Windows SharePoint Services for more document-collaboration functions such as shared attachments. (If you don't have a local server, Microsoft's bCentral small-business portal will host SharePoint sites for a fee.)

Outlook 2003 — or Office Outlook 2003, if you follow Microsoft's new syntax of applying the Office prefix to every product name — promises more efficient e-mail handling, with an easier-reading message pane at the right of the screen (showing, the company claims, almost twice as much of each message earlier versions' default layout at the same resolution or screen size). Organizing or arranging messages is quicker and more flexible, with flags and folders for follow-up, reference, or searching, including the ability to view and save message threads or conversations.

New anti-spam measures include a Junk E-Mail folder that catches many (though not even Microsoft's scientists promise all) unsolicited commercial messages, and a default filter for HTML mail that declines to download images from remote servers — because, Redmond says, sending a query to a marketer's image server is tantamount to saying, "Yes, you've caught a live one, send me more spam." (If you want to send customers an e-mail message containing images, you'll want to embed them in the body of the message.) More traditional, customizable lists of trusted and blocked senders and servers help you fine-tune the e-mail filters.

Single-User Contact Databases, Single-Page Newsletters
By default, SBE uses Word 2003 as Outlook 2003's e-mail editor, though you can uncheck a dialog-box option to stick with Outlook's own editor. Word hasn't changed greatly, though a Reading Layout alternative to Normal and Print Layout views uses ClearType fonts to deliver an optimized-for-on-screen-reading preview and there are new digital-rights-management options for specifying who in your organization can forward, copy, or print documents. There's also a Research task pane that combines a dictionary and thesaurus with a mini-browser window for Microsoft's Office Online help, templates-and-clip-art-downloads, and thou-shalt-stay-within-Microsoft-rather-than-Google site.

PowerPoint 2003 helps small business distribute marketing materials with a Package for CD output option that offers auto-play options to show all the presentations on a CD, just the first one, or let the recipient choose from a menu. If you're sending just one presentation to a current or potential customer, you can include a new viewer — the long-awaited successor to the old PowerPoint 97 runtime viewer — that preserves animations and other special effects.

Probably the star of Office SBE 2003 is Business Contact Manager, which beefs up Outlook's existing Contacts folder with more ways to store and track information about customers, sales reps, or other contacts — making a note of their bosses' or assistants' names, or adding their birthdays to your Outlook calendar — and your history of phone, e-mail, or in-person interactions with them.

You can, for instance, click a timer button at the start and end of, as well as typing notes about, a phone conversation with a client — which is then saved as part of a more flexible contact history than Outlook's own memory-dump Activities tab or list of messages and meetings. You can create accounts with multiple contacts at one company; key in catalog information about your own company's products for pull-down-menu recording of a customer's orders; or peruse various reporting options tracking the sales cycle or possibly neglected accounts.

On the minus side, Business Contact Manager is strictly a single-user, non-networkable database for an individual manager or sales rep — if you want to share your contact or customer file with coworkers, you're referred to the created-for-much-bigger-companies Microsoft CRM. Between that and the lack of Act, GoldMine, or other import/export beyond the DOS-vintage comma-separated-text-file level, it looks like Microsoft has turned a potential home run into a solid double.

Another example of life in MicrosoftWorld — where there is no other software company and no one ever uses non-Microsoft applications — is Office 2003's refusal to save or distribute documents in Adobe Acrobat PDF format, as both WordPerfect Office and the forthcoming OpenOffice.org 1.1 can. Such willful blindness handicaps Publisher 2003's stated goal of meeting a small office's commercial-printing needs, but the consumer- or family-friendly desktop publishing package has made several steps toward suitability for small-scale Web and e-mail publishing.

A new Catalog Merge function, for instance, can turn rows of an Excel worksheet into text blocks and picture frames on an HTML page listing your company's products — arranging rows with an image, description, part number, and price for each, say. Once you've created marketing materials, Publisher can save them as templates, or merge new content into an existing publication (reusing the cover and back page of a newsletter, for example).

And new, professionally designed one-page templates make it easy to send e-mail newsletters, using a compact format that Microsoft says can be read by AOL, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail users as well as traditional e-mail clients.

Again, we'll be bringing you more information as we spend more time with Microsoft Office 2003. But our first impression is that the new suite's Small Business Edition does offer a handful of quite nice conveniences to tempt holdouts who've skipped the last couple of Office upgrades — though nothing big or blockbuster enough to make us write Microsoft a blank check in terms of its to-be-announced price, or write off its OpenOffice.org and WordPerfect Office rivals. Watch this space for more in-depth information about each element of Microsoft's Small Business Edition Office 2003 bundle.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

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