COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Office 2003 for Windows

This past week Microsoft introduced its new Windows Office 2003, the 11th version that now has 400 million users. So how good is it and is it worth upgrading?

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) says this is one of the most sweeping revisions ever, with a focus on making each application better tailored for collaboration.

While Office 2003 contains new versions of all the usual applications, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc., this release adds a significant new product called OneNote. I've been trying Office 2003 over the past six weeks, primarily using Outlook, Word and OneNote.

The first thing you'll notice is that all of the applications have a more attractive appearance, using shades of blue with orange highlights that match the look of Windows XP. Word, PowerPoint and Excel have undergone minor feature revisions for the individual user, and address corporate users with new features such as Information Rights Management. IRM extends specific rights to particular users such as edit and print.

Word adds a "reading pane" view and "smart tags." The reading pane displays the document with pages side by side like a book to make it easier to read documents. Smart tags, used throughout Office 2003, provides mini drop-down menus within the document. For example, when pasting text from a Word document into the one you are working on, a smart tag provides the option of keeping the insertion's format or changing it to match the document you are working on.

Outlook has undergone the biggest improvements. The program, used for organizing e-mail, contacts, calendar and a to-do list, includes a new screen layout, new ways of viewing and accessing e-mails, and a much improved search engine. They all make a big improvement in usability.

The Outlook screen layout makes much better use of the screen real estate. In the e-mail view a column at the left shows all the folders and contains large buttons making it easy to switch between mail, calendar, to-do list and tasks. To the right is a new single column, running top to bottom, listing the e-mail using two lines for each to indicate the sender, date, subject, whether there is an attachment and an area you can flag for follow-up with a single keystroke. The entire right half of the screen is now used to display the messages, and most can be seen in their entirety. As a result it is easy to scan through your e-mail, check contents and quickly decide what action to take. No excuse now for allowing your mail to languish in the inbox. It is now possible to quickly sort your e-mail list using more than a dozen criteria such as by sender, by receiver, by date sent, etc. Searches are near instantaneous and can be saved.

Outlook has added a built-in spam and junk mail filter. In an effort to make it more secure against viruses, Outlook asks for permission when you sync with a Palm or other device, though it gets a little tiring after awhile. Microsoft is responding to the criticism that Outlook has been a major culprit in spreading viruses by allowing access to the contact list, but these solutions also inconvenience the user.

The contact, task and calendar views have not changed significantly, but provide improved screen layouts with the XP look, more descriptive menus and smart tags.

For those using Outlook with their company's Microsoft Exchange servers, retrieving your e-mail over a remote connection has been vastly improved. Previously, if you retrieved your mail using a slow connection, you would download new messages and then need to sync them to permanently move them to your computer, otherwise they'd be gone when you disconnected. Now they reside on your computer.

Installing Office 2003 was simple, both upgrading one computer from Office 2000 and installing it from scratch on a second computer. The only issue was not being able to synch to a PDA, a business card reader and a RIM. Reinstalling these applications fixed the problems. I also had a few e-mails that inexplicably got stuck in the outbox that I could not delete. I've tentatively attributed these to a problem with my cable service provider that had erratic service over a few days.

There are areas that need improvement. For example, e-mail options and wireless network settings each have their menus scattered through multiple locations. A single menu for each would be much preferable. Outlook can also improve the way it handles time zone changes. For example, if you make an appointment for lunch at noon in New York on Friday, then travel to New York and change the time zone, Outlook will shift the times of all of your all your appointments by 3 hours. Lunch is now shown for 3 p.m. And most importantly, improvements are needed to reduce the susceptibility from viruses without adding more encumbrances.

OneNote is an entirely new concept with great simplicity but enormous power. It's all about integrating your activities and files. Think of a loose-leaf notebook and a scrapbook in which you create sections and pages, each with index tabs showing section titles and subsets. Information can be written or pasted anywhere on the page. No longer do you need to go to separate applications and files to access the information. I have to admit that I am just beginning to tap the power of this product, but I see it as being very significant in helping to organize work and activities. A lawyer beta tester praised it, saying that he uses it for taking notes instead of a legal pad, adds links to his research for upcoming cases, adds sketches and photos and then can send it using Outlook to anyone, whether or not they have the application.

So if you are an Outlook user or think OneNote has some appeal to you, Office 2003 is worth upgrading to. If you only use Word or PowerPoint then there is not an immediate need. Outlook sells for $109 and the complete Office suites vary in price from $149 for a teacher and student edition to about $400 for a business version.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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