If your business software is going out of date, next year's launch of Office 12 is a tempting prospect but, says Mary Branscombe, don't ignore open source alternatives
Do you feel like a dinosaur for using Office 97 in 2005? Wait until Office 12 comes along next year. Bill Gates is promising "integration, simplification, and a new breed of software applications and services that manage complexity in the background, and extend human capabilities by automating low-value tasks and helping people make sense of complex data".
Translation: a simpler interface will reveal more of the tools already in Office, and PowerPoint will turn your bullet points into sleek graphics. Also, Outlook will finally put tasks into the calendar view and let you choose times for them.
There's also more control for administrators. The Information Rights Management feature that lets you choose who can view, print and forward documents will cover InfoPath as well as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Admins will also be able to create central policies for expiring and archiving documents, and preset workflows for document approval.
But don't expect all the new tools to be in Word and Excel. Office 12 is, like Office 2003, part of the Office System - a mixture of applications supported by services built into Windows Server 2003, SharePoint Portal Server and Live Communications Server. There are also rumours of new servers similar to Project Server, but for Excel, Visio and InfoPath, SharePoint will still be key for collaboration.
Excel 12 will have tools for real-time dashboards and scorecards that users can publish to a SharePoint portal site. SharePoint will probably get peer-to-peer collaboration features from Groove, a company Microsoft bought recently. Users will be able to create workspaces to share with people outside the company without worrying about the firewall, and connect to SharePoint sites without needing a VPN (virtual private network) connection. Users who can't get online can use offline versions of file shares and SharePoint sites - this works like Email synchronisation in Outlook.
Microsoft is still keen to push Office as a development platform. Partly this is to allow for extra features, such as Smart Tag from Cyence, which lets you request a credit check on a company from inside a Word document. It's also about using familiar Office documents as the interface to information from back-end systems. Microsoft is already working on Mendocino - the codename for software it's developing with SAP, which lets Excel and Outlook access SAP data - and Project Elixir, which will turn Outlook into a tool for viewing CRM (customer relationship management) data from systems such as Siebel.
Some of the pieces will be available this year, including Mendocino, Elixir and version two of Outlook's Business Contact Manager (this will be a free download in July). However, Office 12 is further away. The first beta test version is due late this year, probably October, and the second beta in the first half of next year. That version will probably be available to end users, as with Office 2003.
The final Office 12 is due in the second half of next year, and even if Microsoft doesn't get it out at the same time as the Longhorn version of Windows, most businesses will probably wait to deploy them together. Spreading the word this early may be an attempt to get us to plan ahead.
How many will decide not to follow Microsoft is another issue. So far, there just aren't that many companies moving to alternatives such as StarOffice or OpenOffice.org. According to Gartner researchers, these accounted for just more than 1% of business installations in Europe at the end of last year. And while plenty of businesses have told Gartner they're planning to move to newer versions of Microsoft Office by the end of this year, only 2% are planning to install open source alternatives.
StarOffice 8 is due out this summer, probably in July, and there's a new version of OpenOffice.org on the way, too. Simon Schouten of Sun Microsystems, which owns StarOffice, hopes it will tempt power users. The new features include, he says, a presentation tool to compete with PowerPoint, a database "that's close to the capabilities of Access", and improved "look and feel".
But Gartner's Michael Silver thinks even the migration and compatibility tools that tell you how complex it will be to switch documents to the StarOffice format won't be enough to tempt most businesses. "We've been seeing a big interest for the last three years, but there have been very few moves. The reason is the pain that they can expect in terms of the move. Take macros: a business may only have a few people writing macros but they'll have hundreds of people who run them. In finance departments there are business-critical internally written macros, and it's a totally manual process to redo them."
Silver says Excel macros, Access databases and complex Word documents are typical sticking points, especially when the company will have to keep Microsoft Office for some users. Savings on Microsoft licences then have to be balanced against the complexity of a mixed environment, plus the costs of migration, training and support for open source users.
Silver doesn't think there are compelling reasons to move to open source yet. "They need great compatibility - at this point, it's good and getting better. But beyond that, what are the visionary features that open source offers that Office doesn't have? There's nothing in open source that's changing the way I work."
Microsoft's Nick McGrath claims Office has unmatched advantages for mobile users, and for collaboration. "There is no open source equivalent to SharePoint, and people are saying 'no, we want collaboration'. That's extending down to the smaller businesses. They don't just want standard file and print solutions, they're moving more towards document storage that gives them versioning and revisions, tracking and control. You don't have to have pronounced IT skills to get the most out of SharePoint. Communication and collaboration on open source is in its infancy: we have a robust solution that customers get at commodity pricing."
Graham Keitch at software resellers Grey Matter is seeing growing interest in SharePoint and CRM. "Now you can use Office as a presentation layer, and I don't think companies yet realise that you can do a lot of the development yourself, especially with InfoPath.
"All of a sudden, the IT department has to let go. Users are much more familiar with their own work patterns and what they need to achieve from day to day. Office has the tools to enable people to suck in customer and billing information and work with that in a Word document, not a complex back-end system."
Silver sees businesses getting those advantages almost accidentally. "The majority of those moving to Office 2003 move for Outlook," he says. "A smaller percentage plan to do business integration, but when they get it in place, they end up doing more."
As usual, the biggest competition for the new features and improved integration in Office 12 will be older versions of Office.
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