Since my preview of Office 11 Beta 1 in December, the product has undergone a number of important changes and has received its final branding as Office 2003. This Office version now boasts colorful, attractive icons and other new graphical elements, and I guess I'm finally coming around to its unique user interface. But the changes in Office 2003 Beta 2 aren't just skin deep. Instead, Beta 2 adds a host of new functionality as well as fully-working versions of its two new applications, InfoPath (formerly "XDocs") and OneNote, both of which were missing in action in the Beta 1 release. So let's take a look at Office 2003 Beta 2. There's a lot to take in.

Welcome to the Microsoft Office System

With the launch Office 2003 Beta 2 earlier this month, Microsoft revealed for the first time its plans to market this next generation office productivity suite, though details about the various editions of the product are still forthcoming. Office 2003 is now part of the wider Microsoft Office System, a rebranding of the old Office family moniker. The Microsoft Office System brand is a key element in Microsoft's effort to shift perceptions of Office from a set of programs for document creation to a platform for information work that includes desktop programs, servers, and services. This means that the Microsoft Office System encompasses the core Office applications, standalone applications like FrontPage and OneNote, and new server products such as SharePoint Services for Windows Server 2003. The idea, naturally, is that any of these products work well as standalone solutions, but when integrated together, they become a seamless whole. How well that works remains to be seen, but Microsoft has always pushed the integration strategy between its Office applications, going so far as to invent crazy scenarios where virtually every application in the suite is used to complete work-based tasks. So extending this integration to include server products and services is really just a simple evolution of the company's pre-existing strategy.

"The Microsoft Office System is new way to think about Office," Simon Marks, a Product Manager for Microsoft Office told me recently. "We're bringing together all the Information Worker software we have under one umbrella brand. This includes applications, servers, and services, and we intend to deliver on our vision for information workers, so they can take information and turn it into something useful. This software is designed both for individuals and companies."

Indeed, the Microsoft Office System comprises a vast collection of products. First, there are the core Office applications, which Microsoft refers to simply as Microsoft Office 2003. This suite includes Word 2003, Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, and Access 2003. Other Microsoft Office System products include, in no particular order, OneNote 2003, FrontPage 2003, InfoPath 2003, Publisher 2003, Business Contact Management for Outlook 2003, SharePoint Services for Windows Server 2003, SharePoint Portal Server "v2.0," Visio 2003, and Project 2003.

As part of the product rebranding, most individual Office applications have been renamed as well (Project is the notable exception). So Word becomes Microsoft Office Word 2003, Excel becomes Microsoft Office Excel 2003, and so on. These names are fairly cumbersome, and while I appreciate the various reasons Microsoft might have made this change, I'll continue to use their more common names (Word, Excel) in this review.

The Beta Kit to end all Beta Kits

Microsoft is shipping Office Beta 2 to over 500,000 testers, making this the largest test ever of its office productivity software. And the Beta 2 Kit itself is notable, as it includes printed documentation and 15 CD-ROMs, including separate disks for Microsoft Office 2003, Language Pack 1, Language Pack 2, InfoPath, Publisher, FrontPage, OneNote, Windows Server 2003 Release Candidate 2 (RC2), Windows SharePoint Services, SharePoint Portal Server "v2.0," Business Contact Management for Outlook, Exchange Server 2003 Beta 2, and three evaluation CDs, one of which is focused on developers. This broad range of products, servers, information, and capabilities makes evaluating Office 2003 Beta 2 rather difficult, as it's hard to even know where to start.

What's new in Beta 2

The first time you launch any Office 2003 Beta 2 application, you'll immediately notice that the user interface has been fine-tuned with elegant new icons (which still look crappy in large icon mode, sadly), subtle color-coded highlights and accents, and new splash screens (Figure). The next most obvious change is the new Permission button, present in the Standard toolbar of some Office applications, including Word and Outlook (Figure). This button helps you configure permissions settings for the current document, using a new Windows Rights Management (WRM)-based technology called Information Rights Management (IRM). Basically, this feature lets you optionally restrict how sensitive documents and email can be shared. For example, you might specify that the current document cannot be copied, forwarded, or edited, and this actually includes clipboard-based screenshots as well. We'll look at this feature in depth below, in the section called Information Rights Management (IRM).

Sadly, one of the single biggest changes that I noticed in Beta 2 is that some of the applications--notably Outlook and FrontPage--are far less reliable than they were in Beta 1. Outlook 2003 Beta 2 crashes at least once a day, which is unacceptable. And I've crashed FrontPage 2003 Beta 2 into oblivion on several occasions. Curiously, Word 2003 Beta 2, the Office application I use most often after Outlook, is extremely stable and I've not yet crashed it. Given the various improvements and user interface niceties in Beta 2, there's no way I'm ever returning to Beta 1, but the constant crashes are unwelcome and confusing, given the general reliability of the previous beta.

Incidentally, the crashes are unrelated to upgrade issues. I've installed Office 2003 Beta 2 on a number of machines, and the instabilities are present regardless of the previous state of the machine: I see these crashes on clean installs and upgrades from Office XP and Office 11 Beta 1.

OK, let's look at the individual Office applications.

Microsoft Office 2003

With the exception of Outlook, the core Office applications have received only minor enhancements in this release. That makes sense, because activities like word processing and number crunching are fairly mature, while email and personal information management is still evolving in this digital age. The biggest improvements to the overall Office 2003 suite involve collaboration tasks. Integrating Outlook with document-producing Office applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, for example, it's now possible to easily collaborate on documents, round-tripping them for edits between the various members of a team. For a more complete solution, you could add the server-based SharePoint Team Services to the mix, which provides workers with a self-managing, Web-based collaboration environment I'll describe later in the review.

Microsoft Office Word 2003

Word 2003 now supports the creation of XML documents (Figure), but this feature isn't really designed as a replacement for the standard DOC format. Instead, administrators and power users can create their own XML schemas for Word documents, allowing users to enter information into a pre-formatted template or structured document. This makes it easier to take data created in Word and share it with Web services that understand XML. Word's support for XML, called WordML, is complete: Every Word formatting option is available, and users can roundtrip Word documents--complete with formatting--from the application, to a Web service, and back again, without losing anything.

"XML support in Word is not about document creation," Marks told me. "Instead, it's about tracing information that can be shared. It's not a document format, but rather a data format. In Word, we have a roundtrippable XML format, so you can save it out, say to a a SQL Server. From there, you can perform enterprise-wide searches of data created in Word, something that was impossible or laborious before."

Microsoft Office Excel 2003

Like Word, Excel (Figure) also supports the ability to save as XML, but because some of Excel's functionality doesn't map very well to XML, it's not as complete as the support in Word. "Excel's support of XML is more limited," Marks said. "In terms of a native XML format, it's not 100 percent roundtrippable, because some of the more complex functionality wont work. XML is more two dimensional than Excel, if you will, whereas Excel can look at data in a three dimensional way." Marks noted that the XML support in Word and Excel was best combined with a company-specific XML schema that was created by a developer in Visual Studio .NET 2003 or a similar tool. For example, you might create a resume schema, or use one of the several industry-standard resume schemas that are currently available.

"When you save as XML, you have two options. First, you can save the entire document as an XML file which is both wordML, including the formatting and so on, and your custom defined resume schema, all in one document. This document will be much bigger than the equivalent Word document. Second, if you just want the resume data, you can choose to save just as a simple, clean XML file that doesn't include any information about formatting. You can more easily share this file with other programs."

On the other end, Excel is able to interpret any customer-defined XML schema, meaning you can load XML into Excel and render it as a spreadsheet, chart or graph.

Microsoft Office Outlook 2003

As the center for intra-worker communications in Office, Outlook 2003 has been updated significantly. I discussed many of the changes in my Beta 1 review, but this time around, I'd like to examine some of the features that were added to Beta 2.

Junk mail filtering

Outlook 2003 Beta 2 includes an integrated junk mail, filter, and it's about time. The junk mail filter, based on technology Microsoft Research first developed for MSN 8, is accessed from a new Junk E-mail button in the Preferences pane of Outlook's Options dialog (Figure). When you click this button, a new Junk E-mail Options dialog appears, letting you choose between various levels of protection (Figure), including No Protection (turn off automatic junk email filtering), Low (move the most obvious junk email to the Junk E-mail folder), High (most junk email is caught, but some regular email may be caught as well, requiring you to occasionally check your Junk E-mail folder), or Trusted Lists Only (only mail from people or domains on your Trusted Senders list will be delivered to your Inbox). You can optionally choose to automatically delete suspected junk email instead of moving it to the Junk E-mail folder.

Other tabs on the Junk E-mail Options dialog allow you to configure your Trusted Senders list (which can automatically include all of the users in your Contacts list), your Trusted Recipients list, and an email blacklist called Junk Senders. Each of these options include import from file and export to file functions as well, which is nice.

Microsoft's junk mail filtering feature appears to use sophisticated Bayesian-like techniques to determine which emails are unwanted. That means it doesn't simply perform simple word matches but instead analyzes the content of the messages. Such techniques are among the most effective in beating back the spam onslaught. Unfortunately, the problem with junk mail filtering in Outlook 2003 Beta 2 is that it works only with email delivered directly into your Inbox folder. But I use an IMAP account as my primary email, and that mail isn't delivered to the Inbox, so Outlook's new junk mail filtering feature doesn't do a thing (It appears to have no effect on Hotmail-style Web mail either). This will be fixed later, Marks told me, and Microsoft is continuing to fine tune how this feature interacts with Outlook. "We don't want false positives or negatives, because users want to get to proper emails," he said. "So we err on the side of caution. A couple of spams are better than losing email. We'll be updating the junk mail filtering technology going forward." Marks said that future updates would be available within the lifetime of Office 2003.

Calendar improvements

As someone who spends a lot of time in Outlook's Calendar (Figure) component, I was delighted to see that Beta 2 includes a number of nice improvements to this crucial feature. It still doesn't support the industry-standard interoperability with iCal-based Web calendars, but Outlook 2003 Beta 2's Calendar does sport a nice Save As Web Page feature (Figure) that at least lets you publish a calendar online (Figure), albeit in a form that cannot be used by other calendaring applications. Seriously, guys: Take a look at Mozilla Calendar and Apple iCal and do the right thing. Again, we don't all use Exchange.

From a customizability standpoint, Calendar is now far more exciting. Using the dramatically improved Calendar Options dialog (Figure), you can now configure options such as calendar background color and whether locale-specific holidays will be automatically added to the calendar. I had hoped to report that Microsoft has finally fixed my biggest Outlook gripe of all time in this release, by adding pervasive support for Time Zone settings, but numerous readers tell me that's not the case. Microsoft really needs to fix this problem.

Business Contact Manager for Microsoft Outlook 2003

In Beta 2, Microsoft Outlook also includes an optional add-on called Business Contact Manager (BCM, Figure), which is essentially a mini-CRM application for standalone users in businesses with 25 or fewer employees, though Marks was quick to point out that it doesn't offer the full functionality of a true CRM application. BCM lets individual workers track business opportunities, individuals, and organizations, and assign assign priorities for such tasks as follow-up meetings and phone calls. BCM doesn't offer any type of corporate sharing capabilities, and if small businesses need more functionality, Marks suggested Microsoft's CRM server. In fact, Microsoft will eventually ship migration tools so that users can migrate from BCM to CRM.

Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003

PowerPoint includes a number of interesting new features. In addition to roundtrip-reviewing using Outlook, PowerPoint users can now take advantage of new animation effects, organization charts, and diagram types; use new Task panes to apply layouts and designs (Figure), use sounds and animations in Web-published presentations, and take advantage of the document recovery features Word and Excel got in Office XP.

Microsoft Office Access 2003

Unlike Beta 1, Access 2003 Beta 2 (Figure) ships with MSDE 2000 SP3, allowing you to create SQL Server-based database projects. Access also sports limited XML support by letting users extract data from multiple tables in a database and export the data in a customer-defined XML schema.

Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003

FrontPage (Figure) has been significantly upgraded with features geared toward more professional developers, an improvement that should quell some of the unfounded criticisms of this product. The new version includes a new WYSIWYG Design view, better coding tools, support for integration with third party graphics tools, targeting modes for specific Web browsers, and new table tools that make it easier to create pixel-perfect table layouts. However, more sophisticated users can use a new set of layer manipulation tools that provide industry standard CSS-based layout capabilities as well.

I spend a lot of time in FrontPage, and I'm particularly excited about this release. The new code editor is excellent, and the ability to work with some newer technologies natively is something I'm looking forward too. Note that the FrontPage Server Extensions have officially been end-of-lifed with this release; Microsoft will still support, but not enhance, this capability going forward. For live Web publishing, the company now recommends WebDAV or SharePoint-based publishing points.

Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 ("XDocs")

InfoPath is, perhaps, the most misunderstood tool in Office 2003. Basically, it's an Office tool for XML-based data gathering and data reporting, and unlike other Office applications, InfoPath supports only XML as its native data format (Figure). You can use InfoPath as a standalone application, but where it really shines is in heterogeneous enterprises, where workers need to interact with various back-end data stores. If those data stores import and export XML, administrators, programmers, and power users can use InfoPath to create simple forms applications that let workers enter data, access data, or create reports, all without needing to understand where all the data is stored, or a group of confusing and incompatible front-end applications.

Of course, because InfoPath looks and works like other Office applications, users will find the application easy to adopt. Furthermore, it supports familiar Office features like spell checking. From a development standpoint, InfoPath forms are easy to create, with a WYSIWYG design mode that shields users from the nuances of XML schemas. I'll be looking at InfoPath more closely in a future review.

Incidentally, Microsoft still hasn't determined how to market InfoPath. My guess is that it will ship as a standalone application and as part of certain Office suite editions, such as an Enterprise Edition, but that remains to be seen.

Microsoft Office OneNote 2003 ("Scribbler")

I probably spend about half of my work-related life taking notes in Word while speaking to representatives from Microsoft or other companies either in person or on the phone. As a result, I've developed into a fairly speedy typist, and I have hundreds of different Word documents scattered around my hard drive, with notes from these meetings. At Fall COMDEX 2001, however, I got my first look at a new Microsoft Office application called OneNote, designed specifically for note-taking. After hours of time with the OneNote team, I was eager to adopt the application and begin using it, instead of Word, to takes notes. Beginning with Office 2003 Beta 2, I finally got my chance.

In Microsoft's words, OneNote includes all of the standard typing and formatting features that you would expect from Word, plus tabs for sections and pages that make it easy to work with multiple documents--called notes--at once (Figure). You can click and type or draw with the mouse anywhere on a page, just as you would with paper, and once you have written something, it is saved automatically. You can mark notes that are important to review or require follow-up, and OneNote will summarize them across all your notes. You can easily search through all your notes, and you can e-mail notes directly from within OneNote. And if you have a Tablet PC, you can handwrite notes in OneNote, of course (Figure).

OK, that's a fairly concise, and even accurate, description. But the true beauty of OneNote is the seamless way it works. "OneNote is a new Office family application," Chris Pratley, an Office Product Manager, told me recently. "We generated the idea for OneNote about two years ago when planning began for Office 11. We were thinking about how people really work, what people do all day. A lot of people spend a considerable amount of time taking notes. And every once in a while, you make a document out of those notes."

OneNote works with four basic types of notes: typing, handwriting, drawings, and audio. "And it ties them all together," Pratley told me. "If your notes are on paper, it's no good because you can't find them later. Electronically, at least the notes are there in the computer, but you still can't find them. OneNote gives you an easy way to search notes, and actually use them as a resource, or personal database, where you can refer back later."

In use, OneNote appears to work well. So far, I've only spent a lot of time creating typewritten notes, though I'll be experimenting with handwritten notes and audio in the near future. Old habits die hard, however. Because OneNote doesn't actually create documents, I've found myself "backing up" notes in OneNote by copying and pasting in Word documents just in case something goes wrong. I'll try to wean myself off of that habit as my work with OneNote continues this spring.

Microsoft Office Publisher 2003

Microsoft Publisher (Figure), like FrontPage, is one of the Office applications that doesn't get the respect it deserves in certain circles. While early releases were very much focused on home users, subsequent versions of Publisher have moved the product into small business and low-end enterprise publishing, providing a surprisingly rich environment for creating professional marketing materials, email newsletters, Web sites, and even CD/DVD labels. New features in Publisher 2003 include new wizards for the various publication types; a larger collection of personal publishing templates for such things as business cards, stationary, and labels; a new Catalog Merge feature for creating publications based on back-end data stores of photos, text, and other data; and new support for CMYK Composite Postscript, making it easier to work with commercial printing companies.

Publisher has also been updated to be more consistent with other Microsoft Office System products. Paragraph formatting is now identical to that in Word, and Publisher has new bullet, numbering, and find and replace menu items like other Office applications. Also, the Task pane feature, which essentially debuted in Publisher years ago, has been made more consistent with the other Office applications.

Other Microsoft Office 2003 tools

In addition to the core Office 2003 applications and standard Microsoft Office System products, the Beta 2 Kit also ships with a number of other tools. In this section, I'll take a quick look at some of the more interesting functionality you also get with Office 2003 and the new Microsoft Office System family of products.

Microsoft SharePoint Services for Windows Server 2003

Microsoft has been pushing a Web-based collaboration system called SharePoint for a few years now, but confusion over the various editions (previously called SharePoint Team Services and SharePoint Portal Server), the ways in which they were delivered to customers, and the cost of these solutions, few enterprises have actually rolled out SharePoint-based publishing points. However, idea behind SharePoint is a good one, and the company seeks to push adoption with this second generation of SharePoint-based products by making them simpler to deploy, setup, and administer.

In this latest release, SharePoint Team Services has been renamed to SharePoint Services for Windows Server 2003. SharePoint Services is basically a Web-based replacement for file shares that is easier to use and offers far more functionality, including advanced capabilities like versioning and shared calendars. But because the sites are simple to use and easy to set up, they'll also lower costs in enterprises by reducing help desk calls. STS is a free add-on for Windows Server 2003, and Microsoft will make it available for download sometime this summer, I'm told. "We have over 20,000 SharePoint sites at Microsoft, and we only need a few administrators to take care of all of them," Eugene Ho, Director of Windows Server User Assistance told me recently. "This is possible because we empower teams to control the sites themselves. They can change the look, change access to the site, and perform other tasks that used to involve IT."

I tested SharePoint Services by installing it on top of Windows Server 2003 build 3788, a near final version of that product. Administration is almost completely Web based, and though you can access the sites through browsers like Internet Explorer, many of the Office 2003--including Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint--are also able to interact with STS sites natively.

I'll examine SharePoint Services more closely in the coming weeks, but what I've seen so far is exciting. Once a site is set up through Internet Information Services (IIS) Manager, SharePoint Services administration is completely Web-based (Figure). You can design the site using the provided site templates (Figure) or with FrontPage. Either way, users of the SharePoint will be presented with a Web front-end to your team's site, which includes areas for announcements, shared documents, tasks, members, links, and a variety of document-related repositories, such as photo lists (Figure). When users access the site via Internet Explorer (IE), they can add and retrieve documents, tasks, links, and so on, using the Web-based interface.

But SharePoint Services offers far more exciting capabilities through a variety of Office 2003 integration features. For example, if you are creating a new Picture Library through the Web page and need to add multiple photos, the Office Picture Library application pops up (Figure), letting you select the photos to upload. But you can also access your SharePoint Services sites directly from within Office 2003 applications, using the Shared Workspace task pane in document creation applications such as Word (Figure). When you open a file stored on a SharePoint Services site, this task pane provides you with in-application access to all of the portal's features, including site management, members, tasks, documents, links, and so on. You can even set up alerts so that you can be notified if someone else accesses specific documents. For people who need deep collaboration features, SharePoint Services provides an excellent solution that will, for many users, replace their My Documents folder with a Web page.

For larger enterprises, Microsoft will also offer another SharePoint family product called SharePoint Portal Server "v2.0" (and yes, those quotes are part of the name). SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) builds on top of SharePoint Services to create true portal sites for people, information, and organizations. The idea, apparently, is to scale SharePoint Services to large organizations so that document creators can publish information to entire workforces. I say apparently, because I haven't yet tested this product. However, I do know that it installs on top of Windows Server 2003 and SharePoint Services, will not be available for free, and will also ship in mid-summer. I'll have more to say about SPS in the near future.

Information Rights Management (IRM)

Another innovative new feature in Office 2003 is Information Rights Management (IRM), which builds on top of the Windows Rights Management (WRM) infrastructure Microsoft is developing for Windows Server 2003. Basically, WRM is a platform for rights management, one that will allow content authors to specify how content is shared, controlled, and consumed. IRM in Office 2003 is the first technology to take advantage of WRM, but WRM is open for any third party developers that would like to add this functionality to their own applications.

Here's how it works. "Today, when you create sensitive internal documents, you're pretty much relegated to asking people to not forward the documents outside of your workplace, but you don?t really know [what they're going to do] and you're taking a risk," Marks told me. "An author creates an email or document and sends it to the WRM service on a server, expressing which rights he'd like to attach. For example, a group of people inside Active Directory might have certain rights. WRM encrypts the document with the rights you specify and sends it back encrypted. That user can then send it out via email [or a file share, STS, or whatever]. The recipient has to go back to WRM and present his credentials. If they get a key to unlock the file itself, they will be limited by the rights that were created. So they might not be able to copy and paste the document, print it, or whatever. We don't protect around low-level screen-scrapers, and of course people could take a photo of screen, read it over a phone, and so on. But IRM takes IT staff away from having to deal with signing issues. It's completely self-service."

During the beta, Microsoft is supplying a public WRM server that testers can access. Once Office 2003 ships, however, enterprises will need to set up WRM services on a Windows Server 2003 server to access this feature. Currently, the company hasn't yet decided how it will make this service available, and what the cost will be.

In tests of IRM, I was able to create encrypted email and Word documents (Figure), exchange them with another Office 2003 beta tester, and obverse the results. Essentially, it works as advertised: When protected with WRM, a document or email message cannot be copied to the clipboard, printed, forwarded via email, or screen captured using the normal PRINT SCREEN method (which I admit, was initially pretty humorous). However, I was able to capture a screen using a third party screen capture utility. When I asked Marks about this, he said that Microsoft couldn't control third party utilities, obviously, and noted that there were ways around the technology. "You need to remember that you were granted decryption rights to view the document," he said. "There are ways around it. You have to have access to the data first, however. So you could consciously decide to break company policy--read it over the phone, type it out manually, figure out a way around it--if you really want to get the information out, you will be able to."

When accessed via a non-Outlook 2003 email client, IRM-protected email cannot be viewed or opened at all. Marks said that Microsoft was working on ways to let third party applications interact with these protected emails that involves an update to Internet Explorer. Essentially, Microsoft is working on an HTML IRM browser so that users can use IE to view IRM-protected documents and email.

Marks was also careful to draw the distinction between IRM/WRM and Digital Rights Management (DRM). "Information Rights Management is not DRM," he noted. "IRM is about sharing information, not limiting it like DRM. We want to make sensitive information secure, but not in a way that will make it hard to use."

Office 2003 for Developers

If you're interested in developing add-ins or other solutions for the Office platform, Microsoft has added some interesting new capabilities in Office 2003. One area that hasn't changed much is the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA): This continues virtually unchanged from the previous version. However, to take advantage of new capabilities in Office 2003, Microsoft has provided a new Smart Documents feature that lets you integrate logic into documents using the Task Pane area and integration with Visual Studio .NET so that developers can use this powerful environment to create managed code-based solutions that run within Office.

I haven't spent enough time with these features to feel comfortable discussing them in detail yet, but I hope to use the final release of Visual Studio .NET 2003 in conjunction with Office 2003 soon. Hopefully, there will be more to report in my RTM review of Office 2003 this summer.

Working with the Tablet PC

For Tablet PC owners, Office 2003 incorporates the features from the free Tablet PC add-on pack for Office XP, and adds compatibility with a few new Office applications. In this release, Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote are all natively Digital Ink-enabled, meaning you can use the new Tablet PC stylus interface to interact with the system with the tablet's stylus and in your own handwriting. Support for Digital Ink in Word and Outlook is as hackneyed as ever, meaning that you must open a new Ink insertion area inside of an otherwise all-text document. In Word, you can now insert Ink annotations (Figure) in addition to reviewer's comments and drawings and text.

The big Tablet PC news with Office 2003, of course, is OneNote, which supports handwritten note-taking (Figure). Additionally, you can create an audio recording of a meeting in OneNote as you take handwritten (or typewritten) notes, giving you some interesting functionality. For example, while listening to the audio recording of the meeting later, you can cause OneNote to navigate to the notes you took during the current point in the recording. Conversely, as you're reading the notes from such a meeting, you can choose to hear the portion of the audio that was recorded at any point in your notes.

Requirements

Office 2003 requires Windows 2000 SP3 or higher or Windows XP, 128 MB of RAM or more, a CD-ROM drive for installation, Super VGA (800 x 600) display, and, optionally, a Tablet PC for the Digital Ink features. Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server "v2.0" require Windows Server 2003 RC2 or higher with installed Web application server (IIS 6.0) and ASP .NET; note that FrontPage Server extensions must be uninstalled first.

If you're interested in testing the Office 2003 Beta 2 Kit, please visit the Microsoft Web site.

Conclusions

Office 2003--and the wider Microsoft Office System--provides such a wide variety of capabilities that it's difficult to take in, let alone summarize. Many of the applications in the core Office suite haven't been updated significantly, but that's to be expected because these applications are mature products that already address well-defined tasks. However, the Outlook user interface has been completely overhauled, and if you spend lots of time performing email and personal information management tasks, I suspect the numerous improvements in Outlook 2003 will be reason enough to upgrade to the new version. For users who spend a lot of time taking notes and then later merging them into completed documents, as I've done with this very review, OneNote 2003 is an exciting and necessary application. And that's pretty much where the end user excitement ends, and beyond Outlook and OneNote, Microsoft is going to have a tough sell with individuals. That's not because Office is lacking in any area per se, but rather because it's already very mature. Of course, most individuals get Office with a new PC anyway.

But many of the new features in Office 2003 are geared toward businesses large and small, especially those companies that need document collaboration features. For these organizations, Office 2003 makes a persuasive case. InfoPath will make it easier for non-technical users to interact with the bizarre assortment of back-end data sources found at many companies, and companies that go for the full meal deal--Windows Server 2003, Office 2003, and Windows SharePoint Services--will find themselves with an exciting and often self-managing collaborative environment. Add Exchange Server to the mix and you're in a Microsoft-induced nerdvana of integrated servers, applications, and services. But you don't need to mortgage the future to take advantage of Office 2003's collaborative features, as truly small businesses can simply using the roundtripping features in Outlook to move documents around the office for review.

I'll need to evaluate the final code and spend more time with the various applications, services, and server products included in the full Microsoft Office System before delivering a final verdict, but Office 2003 looks solid. Whether it's enough to turn the tide on upgrades remains to be seen, but for people who spend much of their time in Office, as I do, it's a comprehensive and powerful solution.