Pity poor Microsoft: When it overloaded Office with mountains of features over the past decade, customers complained about bloat and decried the installation footprint of the product. So with Office 2003, the company has taken a different approach, backing off on major new features for the most part, instead working to ensure that its products work better individually and with each other. And the complaints begin anew: "Where are the new features?" the critics ask.

That's not the only problem Microsoft faces with Office 2003. Its feature-packed Office applications control an even bigger portion of the crucial office productivity suite market than Windows does with desktop operating systems, leading some to wonder how the company can possibly convince users to upgrade yet again. It's an ironic problem: Microsoft Office is so mature, that most users don't upgrade on an every-other-version schedule, which is the norm with Windows, but on an every-third-release schedule. That means there are a lot of Office 97 users out there kicking the virtual tires on Office 2003, wondering if this release is worth the price. Allow me to spare you some suspense: If you're still using Office 97, yes, you need Office 2003, assuming you're running a supported operating system (Office 2003 only runs on Windows 2000 and XP). For Office 2000 and Office XP, users, however, the choice is a bit more complicated. Let's take a look.

Here we go again

I've written a lot about Office 2003 (previously known as Office 11), so I don't want to repeat all that good information here. You should consider perusing the following articles before moving on:

Office 11 preview

In my initial preview of Office 11, written almost a year ago, I discussed the goals behind this release--security, reliability, mobility (including Tablet PC and Pocket PC solutions), and ease of use--the introduction of usable XML functionality in the suite, the massive improvements to Outlook's user interface, and the not-so-impressive improvements to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Publisher. FrontPage, I noted, has also been significantly updated, with a professional code editor lifted from the excellent Visual Studio .NET products, and better cross-browser support. Though OneNote wasn't included in the Beta 1 bits I used for the preview, I did spend a considerable amount of time with Microsoft discussing and testing this product that fall, so I wrote up a preview of OneNote as well. InfoPath--then known only by its codename, XDocs--also gets a mention.

Office 2003 Beta 2 Kit review

In early 2003, Microsoft finally provided testers with the second beta of Office 2003, which by that point started using the new Microsoft Office 2003 System branding. This was the first time I evaluated Microsoft's new push to drop the "Office Suite" moniker and make its products a more integrated system, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This kind of integration is controversial, I think: To get the most out of Office 2003, you will need Microsoft's latest desktop OS, server OS, and server products as well. That's an expensive proposition and, for heterogeneous enterprises, not necessarily an obvious choice. Microsoft's Beta 2 Kit was a massive affair, encompassing 15 CD-ROMs, and I covered the whole enchilada, including the core Office products, FrontPage, InfoPath, OneNote, Publisher, SharePoint, Information Rights Management (IRM), and various issues for developer tools and Tablet PC users.

Office 2003 application previews

Since receiving the summer Beta 2 Refresh release for Office 2003, which improved the fit and finish and stability of Office 2003, I've been working on various previews of individual Office applications. These previews highlight the Office applications I use on a regular basis and aren't meant to be all-inclusive reviews. Instead, I've examined the ways in which I use these applications, and the reasons I feel the new versions are obvious improvements over the previous versions. In my Outlook 2003 preview, I highlighted the new user interface, email views, junk email controls, integrated Digital Ink email functionality, and the somewhat improved Calendar component. My Word 2003 preview focuses on the excellent new Reading Layout mode, style locking, and its native support for XML and Digital Ink. For the FrontPage 2003 preview, I explain why this application deserves more respect and examined its awesome new code editor, new layout tools, and improved Web browser support. And just this week, I posted my preview of OneNote 2003, my favorite new Office application with its impressive note taking and organization capabilities, notes backup and portability, and Tablet PC compatibility. Because it's a new application, I also noted a few of my quibbles and complaints.

From suite to system: How Microsoft markets its Office

With previous Office versions, Microsoft touted various new features and improvements to the core applications. Office 2000 embraced the Web like never before which, you may recall, was all the rage in 1999. Office 2000 also introduced such niceties as the multi-object Office clipboard, truly useful Open and Save dialogs, a new SDI interface for Word, Access, and some other applications, personalized menus and toolbars, and a bunch of other stuff that still causes unintentional cringing (Collect and Paste? Seriously, guys). In Office XP, released in mid-2001, Microsoft worked on simplifying Office, which pretty much meant that they started hiding many toolbar buttons, menu items, and the annoying Office Assistant. It also included Product Activation for the first time (a dubious distinction), useful new Smart Tags and Smart Panes (in some applications), and new reviewing and collaboration features, though these features would be improved in the next release as well. From a reliability standpoint, Office XP also added application recovery and corrupt document recovery features.

Fast forward to late 2003: We've got a new Office version, Office 2003, arriving today. So what's the message? Microsoft acknowledges that Office is a mature product line. And let's face it; there isn't much you can do to improve a word processor these days. Word is what Word is, so to speak, and that's not going to change. But what can change is the way these applications work together, work with data from disparate sources, and help you collaborate seamlessly with others to get your job done every day. In other words, Office isn't just a suite of bundled applications anymore. Starting with Office 2003, it's an integrated system that encompasses your desktop, your coworkers' desktops, and various server systems. It's the Microsoft Office System.

Marketing messages aside, basic Office functionality hasn't really changed. Word, Excel, and Outlook still form the core of Office, and these three applications are available in every Office 2003 edition, regardless of how you acquire the product; PowerPoint is available in all editions save the Basic Edition, which is only available bundled with new PCs. This time around, there are new applications, such as OneNote and InfoPath, which address specific customer needs not covered by other Office applications and, in the case of InfoPath, add the final piece to the XML puzzle that enterprises have been waiting for. When you choose an Office 2003 edition, therefore, you're not buying a set of products, Microsoft says, you're buying an integrated solution. You're buying a complete system that satisfies a certain need.

From Basic to Professional Enterprise: How Microsoft sells its Office

Well, that's the plan. What you're really doing is buying a product, of course, and Microsoft is smart enough to offer an Office edition for virtually every product category you can think of. There are also a number of standalone applications you might consider separately, especially those that aren't available as part of a suite. Here are some of the Office 2003 editions and applications that go on sale today.

Microsoft Office Basic Edition 2003

Available only as a low-cost way to acquire Office 2003 with a new PC purchase, the Basic Edition includes Word, Excel and Outlook only. Basic Edition is clearly designed to stem the successes Corel's WordPerfect Office Suite has seen this year with PC bundles and will likely undercut Microsoft's Works 2003 products as well.

Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003

With Office XP, Microsoft test-marketed a special low-end product version called Office XP Student and Teacher Edition that included full copies of Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint. Supposedly available only to actual students and educators (thus the name), Student and Teacher Edition was available in retail locations for just $150, and anyone could walk in and buy a copy without fear of having to qualify for the purchase. There was (and is, with the new version) just one catch: Student and Teacher Edition can't be used later to qualify for the Upgrade version of future Office products. But with a price that low, few people cared. The test was such a success that Student and Teacher Edition is back with Office 2003 (there's even a Mac version now, too). And the 2003 version is actually better than ever: This release includes less restrictive licensing that will let parents of students or children under age 18 legally buy the product. This change makes the Students and Teachers Edition available to more than half of US households, the company says, and Microsoft expects this version to be its retail sales leader going forward. I think they're right.

Microsoft Office Standard Edition 2003

Basically the same bundle as Student and Teacher Edition, but with a higher retail price, Standard Edition will likely see success with volume licenses: It's not available as a PC bundle, where it would surely suffer at the hands of Basic Edition.

Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003

Small Business Edition is a surprisingly capable version this time around, adding PowerPoint, Publisher, and Outlook with Business Contact Manager, a miniature CRM-like add-on for individuals, to what you get with Standard Edition. This version will be available in retail stores, preinstalled on new PCs, and via volume licensing.

Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 and Professional Enterprise Edition 2003

If you want Access, your only option is Professional Edition (and the volume license version, called Professional Enterprise Edition). Office 2003 Pro also adds more XML features than other Office versions, and the Information Rights Management (IRM) document and email protection technologies that will be crucial for certain large businesses. Step up to the Professional Enterprise Edition and you also get InfoPath.

Microsoft Office Outlook 2003

Outlook 2003 is available in every available Office 2003 edition, but I mention it here separately because this application is so positively improved that you may want to consider it as a standalone upgrade even if you opt out of a wider Office 2003 upgrade. There's just one catch: Microsoft knows that it's done a fantastic job with Outlook this time around and the company has despicably removed any upgrade pricing option, the only existing Office application that lacks such an option. So Outlook 2003 will set you back $109 at retail, but it's worth every penny (and is, admittedly, about half the cost of other standalone Office applications). I guess the only real choice at this point is whether getting Word, Excel and PowerPoint (but no future Upgrade pricing) through the Student and Teacher Edition is worth an additional $40.

Microsoft Office OneNote 2003

Curiously, OneNote isn't included with any Office 2003 edition, even the Student and Teacher Edition (wasn't that an obvious bundle?) so you'll have to purchase this application separately. The bad news? At $199 retail, OneNote is an expensive application. But better news awaits: For a limited time, Microsoft is offering a $100 rebate to OneNote buyers, and students can purchase the application for just $49. At these prices, OneNote is a no brainer for anyone who takes lots of notes (students, lawyers, business people who attend frequent meetings; you know who you are).

Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003

InfoPath is only available with the very high end Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003, meaning users of other Office 2003 editions will need to purchase this product separately. It won't come cheap: Because InfoPath is a new product, there is no upgrade pricing, and the full retail price is $199.

Microsoft Office Publisher 2003 with Digital Imaging

Publisher is available in the Small Business and Professional editions, but a unique standalone version of the product, bundled with Microsoft's excellent Digital Imaging Suite, is available for $209, or just $139 after a limited time rebate. For users interested in full-featured desktop publishing functionality, this is a stunning value. If you don't need the imaging product, the standard version of Publisher 2003 costs $169, or just $99 after a limited time rebate.

For more information about the various Office 2003 editions, pricing, and upgrading, please visit my showcase, Microsoft Office 2003 Editions Compared.

Charting the changes

With a release as big as Office 2003, it's sometimes hard to identify the changes that will make a positive enough impact on your life to warrant the upgrade cost. In the past, I evaluated Office on a per-application basis, but in keeping with the new integrated system concept, here I'll examine how Office 2003 impacts its most important customer segments instead.

Changes for individuals

Microsoft Office 2003, like its predecessors, isn't a consumer product. With a name like "Office," we should expect no less: Office is all about productivity, and its applications and various features are all designed to help you get work done. That doesn't mean that hundreds of millions of people don't use Office at home, of course: Microsoft Word, for example, is just as comfortable creating a yard sale notice or recipe list as it is drafting a quarterly report. Individual Office users are therefore all over the map, from students, casual computer users, and grandmothers to telecommuters, remote workers, CEOs and programmers. Another words, everybody uses Office.

For individuals, especially home users, Microsoft is easing up licensing requirements for various versions of the suite. You can install all Office 2003 retail products and use them concurrently on up to three computers, up from two in the previous version, which didn't permit concurrent use. That's a huge change for home users, one that might mitigate the otherwise high price of a retail upgrade.

If you use Microsoft Outlook for email and/or personal information management, you need the latest version. It's that simple. Outlook 2003's vastly improved user interface leaves the competition, and previous Outlook versions, in the dust. Sadly, most individuals can't take advantage of some cool Outlook 2003 features, like shared calendars, though a new feature in MSN 9--due this winter--will offer that functionality to MSN subscribers (even on the consumer end, Microsoft's integration strategy is mind-numbingly efficient). But the best parts of Outlook 2003--the new layout, security features, views, virtual search folders, better performance, and so on--are all available to anyone using the product, with or with Exchange Server on the backend.

The other core apps haven't changed much. Word added a nice Reading Layout mode, but that's hardly a killer feature. Excel and PowerPoint are largely unchanged.

Changes for small businesses

Small businesses tend to fall into one of two categories. Some have a technical user that functions as a de facto administrator (the so-called "computer guy"). Others have grown to the point where they need professional management of their computing resources; these companies often outsource their IT infrastructure to services organizations. In either case, Office 2003 offers some interesting improvements if you're willing to step up to Windows Server 2003, especially the excellent and low-cost Small Business Edition. Using Windows SharePoint Services, even small businesses can easily establish simple, self-maintaining collaborative Web sites where users can work together on shared documents, complete with version control and shared calendars.

Moving up to Office 2003 Small Business Edition, users receive powerful business-oriented applications such as PowerPoint, Publisher, and Outlook with Business Contact Manager (BCM). I've found the .NET-based BCM to be a bit performance challenged, but for small businesses that can't afford a full CRM server, it's a handy solution. It should be particularly useful for salesmen and anyone else that comes in contact with a wide range of people because of their job.

Changes for enterprises

Enterprises, of course, can get the Office equivalent of the Full Meal Deal, assuming they're interested in adopting an alarming amount of Microsoft technologies. In addition to picking up Microsoft Office 2003 for their desktop systems, enterprises could conceivable require multiple Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003, and SQL Server 2003 installations, as well as a variety of other products. These solutions can be quite powerful, and quite expensive. It's a risky strategy, frankly: Most enterprises are comprised of warring factions that jealously guard their adopted technologies, and not all of those technologies are Microsoft-based or even Microsoft-friendly. Those shops that have already bought into the Microsoft philosophy will probably welcome Office 2003 with open arms, especially if they're on a volume subscription program.

Should you upgrade?

So should you upgrade to Office 2003? It's not an easy question. If you're considering a retail-based upgrade of Office 2000 or XP, forget it unless the Student and Teacher Edition meets your needs. However, all Office 2000 and XP users who use Outlook for email or personal information management should seriously consider purchasing Outlook 2003. Likewise, anyone who takes notes regularly should consider purchasing OneNote 2003; both are excellent products without parallel from the competition.

Some in audience will upgrade to Office 2003 whether they plan to or not: When you purchase a new computer, your choice pretty much boils down to which Office 2003 edition you get, as Office XP is no longer an option, and the Microsoft Works and Corel WordPerfect competition suffers by comparison. Volume license customers should move forward to Office 2003 as soon as possible: Improvements in Outlook are too dramatic to overlook, and the rest of the suite enables better collaboration features, especially if you have SharePoint available on the backend.

Conclusions

Depending on your needs, Office 2003 is a good to excellent upgrade over previous Office versions. Sure it's a mature product line, and that means Office won't going to improve in leaps and bounds with each release. But Office 2003 features a must-have upgrade to Outlook, huge improvements to FrontPage, a fantastic new application in OneNote, and intriguing collaboration capabilities across the board. With Office 2003, the whole is definitely greater than its parts.