When Microsoft announced Office 2000 at PC Expo in New York in June, it made its intentions for the suite clear. A so-called "Aggressive Beta Program" was unveiled for 500 key customers as a means of driving user involvement, with plans for 20,000 copies of beta software to follow - these were eventually delivered to customers, developers and solution providers a month late, on 10 August.
Getting the software out to real users is a key plank in Microsoft's strategy. The company claims knowledge management, two-way Webs, cross-version document sharing, and other buzzwords either created or appropriated by its marketing machine, as improvements to the current beta resulting from previous extensive forays into user feedback studies. Microsoft claims to have finally turned its monster cash-cow application suite into "a multi-user collaborative environment for document editing", complete with integrated Internet capabilities, the addition of FrontPage 2000 and more support for Visual Basic.
Rob Enderle is an analyst with the Giga Group who has been playing with the release for some time on his production machine. "I'm not seeing crashes, the software is relatively reliable, and my impression is of an improvement in the quality of the code," he said.
The new ease-of-use features extend to deployment of the applications as much as the beautification of the desktop. The inclusion of FrontPage 2000 in a developers' version of the suite, along with support for Visual Basic for Applications, will enable more customisation. FrontPage 2000 will initially provide document management for Office 2000 Web-based documents, with password-protected folders, or "nested subwebs", allowing variable access to shared Web folders.
FrontPage 2000 will also detect new documents and automatically hyperlink them, and there are plans for document revision control and workflow features that Enderle said "provide Microsoft with a beachhead" in this growing market.
Internet Explorer 5 also has some tech goodies up its sleeve, closely tied to Office 2000. For example, a dual-pane interface that lets users search by URL or keyword has been likened to the new Netscape Navigator's Smart Browsing feature, although it sounds more like Aurora, Netscape's future Navigator 5 interface. These features are added at the expense of open standards, however, using proprietary CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) tags and XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) that Office 2000 users with other browsers cannot access. These features and the fact that Microsoft is pushing the new browser as the de facto interface for Office should ring warning bells at the US Department of Justice.
Other examples of this proprietary approach are the Office Server Extensions (OSE) and Decision Support Services (DSS) for Excel. OSE is similar to the FrontPage Server Extensions (FSE), which are currently used to ease the deployment of Web sites built using FrontPage 98. Unlike the current FrontPage extensions, however, OSE will not be free, will not be offered on multiple platforms, and the extra OSE functions will not be available to users of non-Microsoft browsers or users without an Office licence.
There's no doubting that this is good technology, argues James Eibisch, principal analyst at Input, but there are a host of questions surrounding this release of the suite that cause him concern. "The feedback I get is that users think a lot of this technology is good stuff, but they are concerned about getting locked in by Microsoft," he said.
Companies which have bought into a Microsoft architecture will find a lot of benefits in the new release. "Compatibility with previous versions is a major upgrade incentive," said the Giga Group's Enderle, revealing the true meaning of Office 2000's "cross-version document sharing" capability.
The forthcoming release of NT 5 is touted as the perfect platform for Office 2000 deployment. Originally, the two product launches were meant to coincide, and Enderle believes that NT 5 may be slowing down the Office release. He commented: "NT 5 and Office being developed at the same time causes problems with the code. Microsoft has to bring Office out first, or else something changed in one will break something in the other."
Input's Eibisch sees the move to HTML as a positive direction, and one which could even, paradoxically given Microsoft's addition of proprietary extensions to Office, break the suite's stranglehold on the corporate market.
"It opens the market to third-party add-ons that could ease the transition to an HTML environment. But there is a danger to Microsoft that (if Office 2000 documents are saved as) pure, standard HTML, users will not be tied to Word to view or edit these documents," he said.
Eibisch said the transition to open, HTML-based workgroups may be a worthy goal, but questioned Microsoft's ability to cope with the demands of the enterprise. He expressed fears over Microsoft's commitment to scalability.
"This is not intended to be enterprise-wide groupware," he cautioned.
HTML file handling will require training, and companies may be averse to locking themselves into a Microsoft world just to benefit from a few clever extensions to standard HTML.
It is clear that Microsoft sees the intranet as the future arena for Office, but it has tried once again to embrace a standard by extending it with proprietary technology, in the hope that its market share will create a new standard that it controls. However, the Internet will not be tamed so easily. The emergence of XML as a standard will see new applications available over the intranet to rival Microsoft's software, and the heterogenous nature of the Internet is at odds with Microsoft extensions to open standards.
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