The Office product line enters an interesting gray area with this version, as Microsoft is in the opening phase of a transition to the Web-based services that will define its .NET ("dot net") strategy for the future. A massive, monolithic product, Office will not be brought forward to .NET, but will instead be retrofitted with .NET-like features for the short term while Microsoft prepares its .NET-based successor, which is based on a project called NetDocs . So Office XP, like its immediate follow-up, the cunningly named Office 11, resembles previous Office suites while providing a number of new trend-setting features that will get us more comfortable with .NET. And of course, Office XP includes a number of features that are based on customer feedback from Office 2000. Microsoft performed on-site customer visits, focus-group studies, end-user surveys, document collection studies, lab usability studies, and interacted with customer panels and councils to develop its "Office XP Product Vision Areas," which defined how the product would be improved. In a future part to this review ( What's new in Office XP ), I'll look at the individual features and improvements in this product, but for now, I'd like to focus on the general areas in which Microsoft focused for this release.

Simplification
Office is a massive collection of applications, and each application is itself a massive collection of functionality. Because of this, Office is much more complex than it used to be, a necessary side-effect from the Office feature wars of the mid-1990's, when Lotus and WordPerfect fielded viable contenders. To make Office simpler, Microsoft looked at the ways people use the products and determined which functionality was used most often. The company discovered that the vast majority of Office users spend an inordinate amount of time tweaking their favorite Office applications each time they sit down at a new machine. And Microsoft says that users are combining data from multiple Office applications more frequently, though I've always wondered at the demonstrations where virtually every application in the suite is used to create a cohesive, compound document. Does anyone really work like that?

One of the problems with pre-Office XP versions of the suite is that it's hard for users to take advantage of all of the features in each of the applications. So in Office XP, the company has made it easier for people to get at these features. This is one the biggest new improvement in Office XP. Technologies like Smart Tags and the new Task Pane will let users take better advantage of rich features in the suite that were previously hidden. And the most common tasks can be completed with fewer steps, benefiting all Office users.

Accessing information from any location
Microsoft recognizes that users need to access their critical business data from any location, at any time. Also, the company sees a need for so-called knowledge workers to more easily take advantage of the Web. In Office XP, it's easier to access Office documents wherever they are--the local disk, network, Intranet, extranet, or Internet--in a streamlined and intuitive manner.

Reliability, security, and data recovery
How many times have you had Windows crash while you were working on a critical Word document, only to reboot and find that you had lost half of your work? Microsoft identified reliability and data recovery as two of the key customer concerns and worked to integrate these features into Office XP so that users could stop worrying about the next software problem. Office XP applications can fix themselves automatically if errors occur, and auto-recovery and data reliability features will work to ensure that users' documents are protected, even in the event of a crash.

Additionally, Microsoft has had to take a hard stance with security of late, due to the increased risk associated with online access. Office XP includes a number of security features to ensure the safety and integrity of data.

Collaboration
Document sharing has been common practice for a decade, but Office XP introduces new possibilities for document collaboration, using a number of integrated features in several Office applications. Documents can be easily authored, reviewed, and managed in Office XP, and multi-author documents don't require any special skills or external tools.

Solutions for critical customer segments
Microsoft has identified three key customer segments for Office, including individuals, teams, and organizations. Individuals at home or work will able to take advantage of Office XP's simplicity, reliability, and security. Team users will benefit from its collaboration features. And organizations will benefits from its new deployment tools and enterprise improvements.

OK, this is a nice selection of marketing-speak, but in the coming sections, we'll take a look at the ways in which Microsoft implemented these ideas with actual features, and we'll discuss their relative successes and failures in delivering an Office product that is, hopefully, a dramatic improvement over its predecessor.

But before we take a closer look at the product, let's see how the interactive setup experience has changed in Office XP.