Office 2003 Beta 2: an IT perspective

As Microsoft's forthcoming office suite takes clearer shape, we report on the latest beta version, and its implications for companies' IT strategies.

The message from Microsoft's Beta 2 preview session held in San Francisco at the end of February is that Office 2003 (previously known as Office 11) will 'transform knowledge workers into information workers'. The forthcoming suite will also form a major plank in Bill Gates's strategy for Microsoft to 'double productivity within a decade'. Fine words -- but Microsoft really has been busy in radically re-working its office suite for the 2003 incarnation: the core Office 2003 applications use XML as a native format; new Office 'family' programs have appeared; and Office 2003 support services are provided by Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and SharePoint Portal and Team Services version 2. All of the Office 2003 applications are enhanced over their XP counterparts, the most significant for everyday use being a much-needed overhaul of Outlook's Inbox. Meanwhile, the OneNote personal workbook is a brand-new addition to the Office family that will undoubtedly give the Tablet PC more appeal. However, the major innovations in Office 2003 are aimed at corporate information strategists. New developments include a thorough implementation of XML across the suite, the appearance of InfoPath (previously known as X-Docs), which is aimed at supporting XML-based information gathering within the enterprise, the incorporation of Information Rights Management and better integration of collaborative working. All of these innovations will have major implications for enterprise information management and IT infrastructure strategies.

Office 2003 and XML
'The largest repository of business information is to be found not in structured databases but in business documents such as Word and Excel files'. Jean Paoli, Microsoft's XML Architect for the Office 2003 project uses this attention-getting line to explain his vision for Office 2003. Under Paoli's enthusiastic guidance, Office 2003 has been reconstructed so that the major Office 2003 applications work natively with XML and use .xml as a core file format. The goal is to make these large Office document information repositories searchable and reusable. Central to Paoli's vision is that Office 2003 should make it easy for organisations to create and work with their own custom XML schemas. XML schemas are the specifications of document structures and content expressed as XML 'tags' that allow different applications -- Access, Word and Excel (say) -- to interpret a data string tagged as 'Quarter3IncomeWidgets', for example, as a value and store and display it appropriately. The Smart Document is one Office 2003 technology that has been developed from the new XML implementation. Paoli describes a Smart Document as a business process encapsulated within a Word or Excel document. Smart Documents usually require complex programming and will be tools developed as part of an organisation's information strategy. An example of a Smart Document is a reusable Excel worksheet created to analyse annual financial results. As part of its construction, the worksheet is programmed to use Web Services to retrieve information specified by XML tags -- Quarter3Income', for example -- to retrieve the corresponding information from an Access or SQL database. When the analysis is completed, a report could be generated in which the XML tagged information is formatted appropriate within Word table. A second technology that also piggybacks upon Office 2003's XML implementation is InfoPath (previously called X-Docs). InfoPath is a new Office family application that's specialised for the rapid design of forms that have a much richer structure and appearance than the conventional electronic form, and in which data is stored and identified by XML tags. Once created, an InfoPath form could be distributed via email or Microsoft's SharePoint Team or Portal Server. Once completed, information could be extracted into a data repository using XML Web services. Microsoft sees InfoPath as suitable for supporting organisation processes such as help desk queries, sales data collection, travel expense claims, team surveys and inventory management.

Information Rights Management (IRM)
Based on Windows Server 2003 kitted out with the new Rights Management services, Office 2003 should allow documents and email to be protected from being leaked, copied or forwarded to individuals who are not on a permissions list. Microsoft claims that its IRM security will even extend to preventing browser access by unauthorised individuals. As well as requiring Windows Server 2003 with Rights Management services installed, Microsoft's IRM implementation also requires the following infrastructure: Active Directory to identify individuals by their email addresses; Exchange Server 2003 to support the use of distribution lists to manage access control for groups; and SQL Server to manage the users' rights database. On top of all this, Office Rights Management components need to be installed on each desktop system. Initially, system administrators assign IRM rights by issuing certificates to individuals. At the time of document or email creation from the Office UI, the author selects -- from the authorised list of individual or groups -- who can see it and whether they can read, write, delete or forward it. To support mobile users, a restricted document or email can be taken offline for disconnected reading. However, each document will have to be opened online and authorised by a certificated Rights Management server before it can opened in disconnected mode. Any documents or emails not authorised in this way cannot be opened. An Internet Explorer certificated 'patch' will be required to give browser access to protected documents. A 'starter kit' will be available to allow small and medium-sized businesses to explore and evaluate IRM. Controversially, Microsoft is currently insisting that each desktop system in an organisation must connect to Microsoft to have IRM activated. This requirement should provoke some interesting discussions over the coming months.

Office 2003 collaboration -- document sharing and reviewing, document libraries, discussion and instant messaging -- will depend on version 2 of SharePoint Team services and SharePoint Portal Services, which will be available at the same time as Offuce 2003. Team and Portal differ in their scope: both require Windows Server 2003 SharePoint Services, but Team services is designed to connect individuals into teams while Portal services is designed to integrate across an organisation by providing cross-team-site searching and information management. Team Services can automatically create team-level sites for support document libraries, calendars, discussions, announcements and surveys. From within Office 2003 applications, team members connect transparently to collaboration sites using Web Services with document check-in, check-out and versioning facilities.

Small business support
Microsoft proposes that developments in Publisher 2003 and FrontPage 2003 will be of immediate benefit to small business users. Both of these applications include enhancements aimed at decreasing the uniformity in look and feel of documents and Web pages created with them -- the idea is that small businesses will be helped to produce paper and electronic publications that better reflect their individual characters. Tools will also be provided to help ensure consistency of look and feel across all of a company's output -- including email. To help with the daily grind of generating income, Office 2003 will also offer Small Business Contact Manager for Outlook. Targeted at businesses with less than 25 employees, this Outlook add-in will help track contacts, manage sales opportunities and run reports. To use the current jargon, Office 2003 will present enterprises with 'opportunities and challenges'. With its XML implementation Microsoft has firmly grasped the nettle and addressed the problem of information management and control in a full-blooded way. For most organisations, responding to Microsoft's vision of information reuse through XML and Web services will require a major rethink of their information management strategies and IT infrastructure. The new collaboration and IRM offerings can be implemented independently of an XML strategy, but both require significant developments in IT expertise and infrastructure, and will have an impact on an organisation's online culture. In Microsoft's terminology, transforming 'knowledge workers' into highly productive 'information workers' is likely to be a long and potentially painful process.


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