- Outlook 2003 is easier to use and more customisable
- XML integration makes data gathering and sharing easier
- Word 2003's Reading Mode makes editable documents look like printed pages.
- Too few changes to prompt consumers to upgrade
- won't work under Windows 95, 98 or ME.
Perhaps to assuage the clamouring public, or to work out some development kinks, Microsoft has released a public beta of its popular office suite. Our initial assessment? As in Office XP, the suite's most prominent changes target the professional market. True, Microsoft has enhanced some of Office 2003's applications, adding small improvements such as Outlook's better email handling and spam filtering. But most of Office 2003’s enhancements benefit large-scale setups. Corporate intranets will get a lot out of the suite's new XML integration, which facilitates moving information from one program to another, and its beefed-up collaboration features. Corporate buyers may want to give this beta a run. But, if nothing much changes with the final release, consumers won't find much reason to upgrade.
Setup & interface
Before you can try the Office 2003 beta, you need to get it onto your PC. Unfortunately, for those of you with older PCs, this public beta will install only on computers running Windows 2000 or XP. That leaves out anyone using Windows 95 or 98 -- but, to be fair, it's possible that those older OSs cannot run Office 2003 properly. If you do run a preferred OS, get ready to pay shipping fees for the new beta -- official beta testers will receive the discs for free. Note: we don't recommend installing beta code; do so at your own risk. Installing the Office 2003 beta takes you through the now-familiar product activation process, first seen in Office XP, which locks the suite to one desktop and one notebook PC. But because Office 2003 relies on Windows Installer 2.0, you don't have to reboot the machine after the process is complete, as in earlier editions of the suite. We like that. As always, you can pick and choose which applications to put on your hard drive, weeding out those tools and features you don't need. Most new enhancements to Office 2003's installation process affect only large organisations deploying the suite. Corporate users who install from either the CD or from a network drive can create a local cache of the installation files so that they can implement future changes -- adding a tool or program not installed first time around, say -- without the CD or access to the network. The interfaces of the Office 2003 applications have either changed a lot, some or none, depending on the program. Outlook 2003 has clearly received the greatest overhaul, with a totally reworked preview pane (now called the Reading Pane) that shows twice as much of a message, customisable search folders and the ability to display two calendars side by side. Other applications, such as Word, are more or less the same as their predecessors. Word's toolbars and task panes, for example, look a bit flashier and more colourful than in past versions, but that's the biggest change. There's just one new interface element of note: to make digital documents easier to read, Reading Mode (activated by the Start Reading toolbar button) attempts to reformat your documents to look like printed pages -- a bit like Adobe's Acrobat. But in Reading Mode, unlike in Acrobat Reader or the former Print Preview, your documents remain editable. On an LCD screen, the text looks as clear as can be -- it's great for browsing long documents.
Like every iteration of Office, this newest edition sports a host of enhancements and additions. But it's clear that Office has matured enough so that new doesn't necessarily mean better -- at least for home and small business customers. Microsoft makes a big deal out of the improved functionality of Outlook, with good reason. Although Outlook isn't the perfect mail client and scheduler, this version is substantially easier to use and comes with a bevy of new features. You can now group messages and replies in a long back-and-forth exchange so that you can easily see the most recent message or reply to any message in the thread. The ability to flag messages with a single click (something Outlook Express already does) makes it easy to mark important messages. And best of all, you can customise Outlook's Search Folders to create new views, such as Last Week's Mail or Mail Today, that cut through the clutter by showing you only messages with certain attributes, such as flags. In addition, Outlook's new Reading Pane gives you more room to read messages than previous Outlook versions did. If the three vertical panes feel a bit cramped, you can customise Outlook's interface to put the Reading Pane on the bottom, as in Outlook 2002. At long last, Outlook finally incorporates anti-spam measures, including a built-in filter and the ability to build or even import lists of accepted (whitelist) and junk mail (blacklist) domains. In version 2003, Outlook not only identifies mail as junk mail, it automatically tosses that junk into a new Junk E-mail folder (or, if you want, Outlook will automatically delete it). Previous Outlook iterations made you create Rules to manage your Inbox -- a real pain in the neck. However, in our brief time with Outlook's anti-spam filter, it caught only about one in three junk messages. It's better than nothing, but we'd like the option to block various languages and character sets. Word now includes a format-locking feature so that you can lock down any document's formatting and style or restrict the number of formatting styles others can apply -- creating, in essence, a template. This should appeal to companies that want all official documents to have the same look and feel. PowerPoint and Access now offer up SmartTags, too -- those sometimes-annoying (but usually handy) icons that automatically appear to mark such things as addresses, names and other selected data, as Excel and Word have done in the past. In addition to the usual suspects, two brand-new programs, which Microsoft might ultimately bundle with the final Office suite, have entered the Microsoft toolkit. OneNote, a potentially indispensable note-taking and recording program, will appeal to all manner of note takers, from students to personal assistants. InfoPath, formerly known as X-Docs, enhances the ability of individual Office applications to collect and share data via compatible servers. The biggest Office 2003 enhancement plays only to the corporate crowd: better XML integration for enterprises that increasingly use the XML standard to import data from remote sources, such as business processes or online information services. Office XP programs offered similar XML support, but it wasn't elegantly implemented -- Word 2002 stored XML docs in two files, rather than one, for example. Office 2003's core applications -- Word, Access and Excel -- can create documents using XML data pinched from other applications or online services. Word, for instance, could grab numbers from a sales application that provides its data in XML format, then automatically generate tables for, say, a weekly report. Plus, Word 2003 saves XML docs in a single file. All of the applications in Office 2003 can create and manage XML documents and use XML to share data and documents among themselves. But to end users, whether or not to use XML really isn't a question; XML is seamlessly integrated into individual applications. If your company relies on XML for information exchange, on the other hand, you may be able to trim some time producing documents or spreadsheets. With InfoPath, companies can use XML's data-gathering and grouping functionality to create interactive surveys and forms for collecting and managing data. For instance, a mail room may use InfoPath forms to collect and share inventory data. Of course, this capability won't matter much to most consumers and small or home offices. Over the years, Microsoft Office has gradually become more Internet-aware as well. Office 2003 continues that tradition by adding more online collaboration tools. The new SharePoint Team Services 2.0 (which works off of the yet-unreleased Windows Server 2003, Internet Information Services (IIS) and SQL Server) features a document workspace where employees share documents with co-workers. SharePoint also offers a new Meetings workspace for conducting online presentations, sharing meeting minutes and action items and managing all materials and follow-up actions.
Service & support
This beta version of Office 2003 is a lot better supported than most pre-release software. But as per Microsoft's traditional approach to betas, you don't get the one-to-one phone or email support you would with a released product. You can, however, access newsgroups from Microsoft's Web site, where other beta users hang out, and connect to the beta Office Web site, where you can retrieve templates and read articles. Once the suite officially rolls out, the usual glut of Microsoft support options, including a top-notch knowledge database and expensive phone calls, will come into play. Office Pro 2003 doesn't debut any new fix-it features but retains the help menu's Check For Updates and Detect And Repair functions, which go online and search for updates or patches and repair any damaged or corrupted files. We'd like to see Office become part of the Windows Update process, which automatically scans your PC and recommends updates, so that we wouldn't have to go two places -- one to patch Windows, another to fix Office. Alas, that won't happen in this edition.