By Mike Gunderloy and Susan Harkins

Any number of articles will be written about the new features in Microsoft Office 2003. If you’re only interested in the features, you might want to just download the Office 2003 Reviewer’s Guide from Microsoft. The real question boils down to this: Should you upgrade? In this five-part series, we’ll lay out the pros and cons to help you answer that question. We’ll talk about new features, but we’ll also show what the new versions can (or can’t) add to your organization.

We’ll start our examination with the traditional Office core applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access. (Later in the series, we’ll look at the other Office applications. as well.) You need to balance three main factors when deciding whether to upgrade the Office core to the new version: features, licensing, and which version of Office you’re running now.

Office 2003 features
In Microsoft previews and other official documentation on new features, you’ll read phrases about connected, intelligent, and innovative applications. What does all the hype really mean?

Connections count
XML and Web services provide the bulk of connection enhancements. If this is the area that’s most important to you, you’ll upgrade for Word and Excel—and the other applications will just come along for the ride. Word and Excel definitely got the majority of the attention:

  • Word supports XML file creation, storage, editing, and XSL data transformation. Earlier versions of Word couldn’t save a Word document (.doc) as an XML document, although you could use XML to save HTML data in this format.
  • Word and Excel fully support customer-defined XML schemas. You can view, edit, and save documents as XML from inside Word or Excel. The XML Source task pane turns the process into a simple point-and-click operation.
  • New editing features let you choose who can edit a Word document. You can even protect (or unprotect) selected areas of a document now. Combine the capability to identify a desired region as editable with schema validation and you can turn Word into a data input tool for an XML-based solution.
  • Refreshable XML Web queries that work with data coming in and going out are new to Word and Excel. In Excel, you can link spreadsheets to XML data sources and quickly update content in the expected format and in a familiar environment (Word or Excel).
  • Access also got a few XML enhancements. Exporting and importing XML data is easier and flexible. If there’s no XSD file, Access determines data types and formats from the incoming data. It works pretty well. You can also sort an XML file while exporting the data, and exporting related tables directly is supported now.
  • Web services are still fairly new to most of us, but Office 2003 has gone a long way toward making them easier to integrate into your solutions. The Office 2003 Web Services Toolkit (a free download) exposes data from legacy systems. After installing this toolkit, you can find and integrate an XML Web service from inside the Visual Basic Editor (VBE). Simply run a search for a specific Web service and then set the appropriate reference for the VBA project.

Intelligent and pretty
Let’s face it: Someday software is going to be smarter than us. Office 2003 may not be implanting nanoprobes yet, but some of 2003’s enhancements are impressive, just the same:

  • Smart tags are new to Access and PowerPoint, and existing Smart tag capabilities in Word and Excel are improved. The developer will find more to work with and the user will find them a little more friendly because you can now turn them off and on. Use them to build context-sensitive, on-demand interfaces that provide relevant data to the user or automate tasks. The key is that the task can be related to a particular term within the document. For instance, you could program a smart tag inside a form to send e-mail to the person listed in the form.
  • Smart documents are XML-based documents that extend the smart tag technology available in Word and Excel. They rely on the position of the insertion point or the active cell to display context-sensitive information to aid the user (in a special task pane). As long as the document knows where the user is, the document can display information the user may find helpful. Smart documents aren’t limited to just displaying data. If you can program the task, you can add it to a smart document where any number of actions—selecting a particular cell, entering a specific string of text, moving the insertion point to a specific region—can trigger it.
  • All Office 2003 applications sport a new task pane, the Research Library. The user can search local and remote data sources on the Internet from inside a file. The library feature can be controlled by administrators and extended by developers.
  • Windows SharePoint Services (formerly SharePoint Team Services) allows members of a workgroup to share information quickly and easily with one another, via a Web site. Office 2003 makes it easier to create a list based on data in Access, Word, Outlook, or Excel and quickly publish it to other members. We’ll consider SharePoint in more depth in a later article.
  • The Access 2003 AutoCorrect object displays the new AutoCorrect Options smart tag, which allows users to automate specific AutoCorrect entries. Fortunately, you can disable this feature, since it’s apt to be seen as a nuisance by some.

Innovative additions to really wow you
If connections and intelligence don’t impress you, maybe some of the more innovative additions will:

  • One of the most frequently asked questions is whether Office 2003 will support .NET. Yes and no is the answer. Use Visual Studio Tools for Office to automate documents and workbooks using Visual Basic .NET (or Visual C# .NET) that’s written in the next version of Visual Studio—Visual Studio .NET 2003. This is good news for the Office developers that are using .NET elsewhere; they won’t have to wait for .NET to actually be incorporated in Office in the proper sense. While it isn’t a full Office .NET package, it’s more than XP offers, which supports limited .NET customization that can’t associate .NET routines with a specific Office file. Those of you already in the process of moving to .NET can get a jump on Word and Excel applications.
  • Regardless of the methods you put in place to document object dependencies in Access, chances are you’ve deleted an important object or two, thinking it was obsolete. (Of course, you had a recent backup to the database, so the mistake was easily resolved!) The new Access Object Dependencies task pane takes the guesswork out of dependencies. Simply open the task pane and view a complete hierarchy of dependent objects.
  • Excel is already pretty full-featured in Office XP. But this version manages to sneak in a few new statistical functions, the ability to associate Smart tags with a particular section of a worksheet, and support for lists—essentially, database tables in a spreadsheet.
  • Word’s new Break, Line, Page, and Rectangle objects and Breaks, Lines, Pages, and Rectangles collections give the developer more control and flexibility when drawing. Word also gets a new reading mode designed to enhance on-screen reading while hiding screen clutter and even better markup tools than it already had.
  • PowerPoint gets ink support to enable annotations when running on a Tablet PC, full-screen playback, and the ability to package both your presentation and the PowerPoint viewer to CD.

And what a great sense of humor–licensing and versions
Microsoft has added even more choices to the lineup of Office versions this time around. You can now purchase six packages:

  • Microsoft Office Professional 2003 Enterprise Edition contains the professional versions of Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Access, as well as Publisher, Business Contact Manager, and InfoPath. This edition is only available to volume licensing customers; you won’t be able to go out and buy Enterprise Edition in a box.
  • Microsoft Office Professional 2003 will be available at retail. It contains everything that’s in Enterprise except InfoPath. You can purchase InfoPath separately.
  • Microsoft Office Standard 2003 is targeted at business desktops: It includes the regular editions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and that’s all.
  • Microsoft Office Small Business 2003 adds Publisher and Business Contact Manager to what’s in Standard.
  • Microsoft Office Basic 2003 is just Word, Excel, and Outlook. This is an “OEM-only” edition that will only come preinstalled on new computers, and is an obvious reaction to the gains that Corel has made in that arena.
  • Microsoft Office Student and Teacher 2003 is Standard under attractive licensing terms for the academic market.

Note that there are both regular and professional versions of the core applications. According to Microsoft, the professional versions include “full support for customer-defined XML schemas, Information Rights Management (IRM) content creation and authoring.” It’s not yet 100 percent clear what this means, but it does suggest that if the XML features are important to you, you’ll need to stick with either Enterprise or Professional.

The eagle-eyed reader will notice one significant change here: There’s no longer a Developer suite. That means that the only way to buy FrontPage is as a standalone product. Also, none of the announced editions contains the Access runtime redistributable, but Microsoft has assured developers that “Microsoft will be announcing a new SKU that contains the license for using the Microsoft Office Access 2003 Runtime that will ship shortly after the release of Microsoft Office 2003. Microsoft acknowledges the need of providing Access developers a way to distribute their applications royalty-free.”

Where are you now?
It can’t all be good news, right? Windows 9x and Windows NT users are in for a bit of shock. Office 2003 runs on Windows 2000 and higher only. That means additional, and perhaps unexpected costs, because you’ll have to upgrade the operating system. It also means more work for those of you still supporting legacy applications. Upgrading now might not be too bad. Skipping this upgrade could cost you a lot more money in the long run when you finally do get around to converting. You can get away with skipping one or two upgrades, but stretch it any further and you may regret it.

If you want to use all of the advanced features of Office 2003 (notably in Outlook and SharePoint), plan on some server upgrades as well. Outlook 2003 reaches full functionality only when paired with Exchange Server 2003, which only runs on Windows Server 2003. Similarly, the version of Windows SharePoint Services that works with Office 2003 is a Windows Server 2003-only product. You don’t need to upgrade your entire server infrastructure, but you’ll need to plan on at least one new server to host these products.

If you’re an Office 97 user, you also need to consider the looming end of support for that version. Hot fix support for Office 97 has already ended; you won’t get any more bug fixes for issues you find, no matter how severe. Assisted support ends in January 2004; after that, you won’t be able to call Microsoft for support issues on Office 97 (though there will still be Web-based self-help support for another year). Security fixes also end in January 2004. (Find more details on the Office support lifecycle here.) Office 2000 users shouldn’t be too complacent either; that version’s options will start winding down in July 2004 and come to an end in mid-2006.

Are you ready for the plunge?
Deciding whether to upgrade shouldn’t require expensive consultants (although don’t let me talk you out of calling) or sleepless nights. Here’s the gist of it: Developers always need to upgrade. Keeping an absolutely current system is necessary to deal with the widest range of potential clients, though you’ll also want to keep at least one previous version around.

If you’re using Office 2000 and Office XP, weigh the costs against what you’ll get. If you have a lot of Windows 9x systems, you may want to upgrade slowly. But consider this: Microsoft’s never going to reach back from the future and beam your Windows 9x system up. You must either upgrade now or later, but you may want to wait for another upgrade if there’s nothing in this one that really compels you.

Office 97 users are in a worse position. With the support lifecycle ending for that version very soon, and increasing incompatibilities with new versions and new servers, it’s time to upgrade. If your shop is still using Office 97, we recommend getting started on your Office 2003 evaluation right now, so you can upgrade as soon as it’s released. After six years, it’s time.