Office 10 is smart for small biz

Office 10 which adds speech recognition and an online collaboration tool, is now available for "lease". Small businesses should find annual subscriptions least expensive and hence a more attractive option to traditional purchasing.

No recount needed here: Microsoft Office has a mandate. Whether the voters spoke with their pocketbooks or Microsoft crushed competition with predatory practices is immaterial; the fact is, more small businesses run on Office than any other suite.

The second and most recent beta version of Office 10, the hopefully temporary name for the next edition of the suite, came out last month. The suite is far from ready for release -- it's too flaky and way too slow for work-a-day chores and chews up system resources faster than Jim Carrey changes personalities -- but from what I've seen so far, Office 10 shows some small business smarts in four areas.

Speech speeds up small biz

Office 10 adds speech recognition and voice dictation to the small business user's arsenal of control choices. This isn't the first time that such control has been available, of course. Third-party speech recognition software such as that produced by the now-struggling Lernout & Hauspie has been around since the '80s, and the other two major productivity suites, Lotus SmartSuite and Corel WordPerfect Office, have bundled IBM's ViaVoice and Dragon System's NaturallySpeaking speech software, respectively, for years. But Office is the first suite with speech recognition designed expressly for it, and from scratch (Microsoft developed its own speech engine rather than license one).

For most businesses, speech remains more gimmick than godsend. But there are times when it speeds up work. Dictating short documents like letters and memos using Word and e-mail with Outlook are good ways to put speech to work.

In limited use like this, dictation plays well in firms where office support staff is almost nil. For slow or inaccurate typists, dictation is a faster way to pump out short messages than the keyboard.

Now the drawbacks. Office's speech recognition tool works only within its own applications, not within Windows as a whole. You cannot control elements of the desktop, for instance, nor can you operate other, non-Office applications using your voice. In fact, you cannot voice-surf within Internet Explorer, a trick which all other third-party speech recognition packages allow.

To Microsoft's credit, Office 10 reminds you several times during installation and training that speech can't completely replace the mouse and keyboard.

Then, of course, there's the inherent inaccuracy of speech recognition: even the best software provides exact dictation no more than 90 percent of the time. When I did some down-and-dirty tests of Office's speech, it got my words right about 85 percent of the time; remember, though, that this was with beta software, and might improve before release.

Nearly as significant as the addition of speech recognition, I think, is Office 10's unusual distribution method. I'll spell out its new lease-or-buy strategy in the next section. Subscription software

When Microsoft releases Office 10, it will be sold in both traditional editions and a new "lease" version paid for by annual subscription, which may be attractive to some small businesses.

If the subscription price is low enough, it could be a good deal for small companies that want Office, but don't have the cash flow to purchase a slew of copies . Of course, the total "rental" cost over time may be higher than a one-time buy. In that case, the choice isn't any different than the buy-or-lease dilemma that companies already make on equipment like vehicles and computers. (We won't be able to calculate the buy-vs.-rent break until prices are set in 2001.)

With the leased version, you only need to run a single install from CD-ROM on each PC. All updates are downloaded from the Internet -- a feature that should be attractive to businesses strapped to perform IT maintenance.

Naturally, there's a downside (other than the unpalatable idea of paying repeatedly for a Microsoft product). Although Microsoft hasn't made plain which kinds of updates will be included in the subscription version, it's conceivable that feature upgrades during the year (as opposed to bug fixes) will be either expensive or unavailable to those who have purchased the product rather than rented it. That would raise a firestorm of protest, and rightfully so.

No matter how you get Office 10, I think one of its biggest boons for small biz is its enhanced collaboration skills. Read on for my take.

Get everyone together

The new Microsoft SharePoint application, a shared online workplace, gives you an easy-to-construct and simple-to-maintain team site that features collaborative tools like file sharing, online discussions, event postings, and shared task and contact lists. If you've seen or used sites like Intranets.com, you know what it does. (For more on small business intranets, read "Small business intranets: Outside in.")

If your business sports an Internet or intranet server, you can install the Office Web Server (OWS) on the system to implement SharePoint. OWS is included in all editions of Office 10. But since home-grown servers are outside the ken of many small businesses, or take too much time and effort to maintain, that may not be an option for your company. In that case, consider switching ISPs: Microsoft plans to partner with selected ISPs, who will host the SharePoint workplace for a fee or for free. Those ISPs haven't been announced, and likely won't be until the mid-2001 release of Office 10 nears.

As it stands in the latest beta, SharePoint only partially integrates with Office. You can save and open files to its storage space from within Office applications, for instance, but you cannot synchronize its events with, say, Outlook. (Instead, you must manually export from SharePoint to Outlook.) Nor does SharePoint include a shared calendar, as do online group PIMs like ScheduleOnline. That's a big omission.

A much simpler solution, but one which integrates only online document access, is embedded in Office 10. You can use the Save as Web Page command under the File menu, to save any document within any Office 10 application to a free 30MB storage space on MSN. This is the same workspace that MSN makes available to anyone, but you can now save and open files directly from Office 10 applications, without having to use the workspace's normal file upload and retrieval tool.

Like earlier versions, Office 10 comes in several different editions, including a Small Business suite. I took a look at that edition, too, and even though it's incomplete, found two things worth your while. Click on for the details. Special for small business

As it has in the past, Microsoft is offering a Small Business version of Office which includes the excellent Publisher application. This low-end desktop publishing tool has been updated for Office 10 to take on the look and feel of the suite's other apps. It now displays helpful but space-hogging Task Panes -- side panels which display frequently used tools such as mail merge, recently-accessed files, and a new system-wide file search engine.

The Small Business edition of Office 10 also includes Customer Manager, a separate application for tracking dealings -- including financial -- with customers. By integrating with other Office programs (primarily Outlook) and Microsoft Web services and sites, Customer Manager lets you collect info about customers, buy mailing lists (via Microsoft's bCentral Web site), and create more personalized mailings. It works a lot like a Lilliputian edition of ACT or Goldmine, the leading contact managers on the market. In the most recent beta of Office 10, much of Customer Manager's functionality is still AWOL: filters for bringing in financial info, like outstanding invoices, from small business accounting programs, are not yet available.

It's too early to make a final call on Office 10 in small business. We're sure to see at least one more beta before the final goes live, no matter what Microsoft may have said in the past about planning on just a pair of betas. As it stands now, though, I'd give it a tentative thumbs up, primarily because of its new speech and small company-appropriate online collaboration.

Stay tuned ... I'll revisit Office's place in small business down the road.

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