Depending on whom you talk to, the coming of the millennium is either cause for ecstatic revelry or the end of civilization as we know it. The same is true for Office 2000. Where previously Microsoft provided a suite of integrated and easy-to-use applications for the desktop, Office 2000 has now become a platform for enterprise-wide productivity. Where once Office empowered the individual, it now takes advantage of the Web to enable and enhance workgroup collaboration. The hooks into Microsoft BackOffice, Internet Explorer, Windows NT and the Microsoft development tools are so deep and the Web support so complete that it all but obliterates the competition.
Throughout Office 2000 there is an underlying intelligence that makes the program easier to learn, simplifies formatting and prevents obvious errors from being made. The Collect and Paste feature lets users cut, copy and paste multiple items at a time. Double-click in the center of the page and type there, and the software is smart enough to know you want to create a centered heading. The font menu now displays fonts in their own typeface, making it easier for users to select the one they want. And there are new features for organizing e-mail in-boxes and customizing the way information is displayed.
The much-touted personalized menus simplify the user's experience with Office by displaying only the most commonly used commands. Hover over the menu briefly or click on a chevron symbol at the bottom, and it pops out to reveal the rest of the commands. As you choose commands, they are promoted to visible status. Over time, the menus become personalized to reflect the way an individual works with the program. In theory this sounds great but could be a nightmare for the IT department because every user's copy of Office could be different. Fortunately, this feature can be turned off.
Other additions to the suite are centered on day-to-day productivity. The Outlook Today screen in Outlook 2000 provides an at-a-glance view of the day's appointments, scheduled tasks and waiting e-mail. Users can also save shortcuts to frequently used Web sites within the Outlook bar. Because this screen is built in HTML, corporate IT departments can customize it so that it also displays company information and news. Outlook's contact management tools have been improved to the point where it can hold its own against sales force mainstays such as ACT!, Organizer or Maximizer. Particularly strong is its ability to track all of the activities associated with a client.
Publisher 2000, included with the premium addition, offers an interface similar to Word 2000 but with features specific to the creation of brochures and newsletters. While it will be useful to small businesses, it's not a replacement for a professional desktop publishing program such as QuarkXPress.
PhotoDraw provides the suite with long-needed integrated graphics capability. Designed for business users rather than graphics pros, PhotoDraw combines vector and bitmap graphics and photo editing in a single program. Although features such as the Save For Use In Wizard, support for AutoShapes and clip art, and an extensive help system are designed for beginners, PhotoDraw is surprisingly powerful and perhaps the most welcome of the new programs added to the suite. 2-D shapes and text can be rendered into 3-D images and the program includes a variety of photographic and painterly special effects normally only seen in professional programs such as Adobe Photoshop or MetaCreations Painter.
A few long-standing irregularities have been removed. Opened Office documents now appear in the taskbar along with those from other programs, making it easier to switch among them.
Despite these timesaving features, IT managers are likely to be more excited about the software than individuals. Indeed, individual users will see little difference between this and previous releases and will have little reason to upgrade. Installation has been made more scaleable and customizable and Office now runs from a single code base, making it easier to deploy on a global basis. It's even possible to switch languages without reinstalling the software. Self-repairing applications first seen in the Macintosh version of Office will search for any missing dynamic link library (DLL) or corrupted file and replace it as needed.
In an effort to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) Microsoft has concentrated on making Office more flexible to deploy, simpler to administrate and more cost-efficient to support. As IT professionals are increasingly called upon to extend desktop productivity to networks, Office 2000 now includes features for group collaboration over an intranet or the Internet. Microsoft's newfound commitment to Internet standards lets Office 2000 be the basis for a collaborative Web space.
The ability to customize the installation is a mixed blessing. There are a variety of custom installation options that allow you to tailor the installation to the specific needs of your users, but may cause confusion. Features can be installed to desktop PCs or run from either a CD or the network.
If a user tries to access an option that isn't installed, the program will ask for the CD or offer to install the option from the network. While this provides the IT manager with complete control over which options are installed, it could be a problem for mobile users who may not be connected or individuals who may not have the CD at hand.
The various install options are welcome because Office 2000 is even more of a behemoth than its predecessors. You shouldn't even think about running it on a machine with less than 64 megabytes of memory, and a full install will take up a staggering 526 megabytes on your hard drive.
The standard edition of Office 2000 includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, while a small-office edition adds Publisher. The professional edition includes PhotoDraw, the new image editing program, and the Access database. Also included in the pro edition is FrontPage, a Web publishing application that, now that any Office document can be turned into a Web page, serves mainly to provide site management features. The price ranges from $209 to $399 for individuals upgrading from an earlier version to $499 to $799 for first-time buyers. Microsoft also offers volume discounts to corporations.
Working the Web
By far the most significant change to Office is the strong support for Internet standards throughout the suite. While Microsoft critics will grouse that Microsoft has only embraced the standards in order to co-opt them for its own evil gains, there's no denying the impact of this decision.
HTML has been promoted to co-equal status with the existing Office file formats. This seemingly simple change has rather profound implications. Microsoft Office documents are already the most common types of documents produced by corporations, but HTML support means that it will be far easier to share documents and collaborate over the Internet or an intranet-especially, it should be noted, with people who aren't using Windows and Microsoft applications.
Before Office 2000, you had two choices if you wanted to get information out of Office and onto the Web. You could save a document as HTML and lose all of the fancy formatting or you could hand-code a document in HTML for something more presentable. With Office 2000, no specialized knowledge is required to create richly formatted and even interactive Web pages. Just as important, users can create these pages using the tools they are already familiar with and rely on daily in their work.
Word can be used to create basic HTML pages, while PowerPoint can author online presentations that, with the help of Microsoft's NetShow, can be broadcast over the Web complete with audio narration and real-time streaming video. Excel 2000 spreadsheets and Access 2000 databases are also live, allowing users to interact in real time with the data. For example, a table can be sorted or a spreadsheet calculated without having to leave your Web browser. To turn this trick, Office 2000 includes a set of Office Web Components-Spreadsheet, Chart and PivotTable-that rely on ActiveX technology to add interactivity to any Web page. Through the Web Query dialog box, a user can import data into a chart or Excel PivotTable that can be published to the Web and displayed in Internet Explorer 4.0 and above. If your users employ another browser, such as Netscape Communicator, they'll still see the data. They just won't be able to interact with it.
Users just choose Save as Web page to turn any document into an HTML file that relies on Extensible Markup Language (XML) to preserve all of the rich formatting contained in the original document. A few features, such as comments, versioning and passwords, aren't supported, but they remain in the document and can be seen if the document is reopened in the original application. Likewise, the comments get ignored when opened with a Web browser or other program parsing the HTML, without destroying the integrity of the original document. Similarly, Office 2000 will ignore any HTML commands it encounters but doesn't yet support.
A new feature, called Web discussions, allows users to insert online discussions into any Office document or HTML file and view them from within a Web browser. Users both inside and outside the firewall can subscribe to documents and folders to receive e-mail notifications when changes are made. Web discussions are typical of Microsoft's approach to the suite. Instead of requiring users to learn new ways of working, wherever possible features have been added or extended to support group collaboration.
The redesigned open and save dialog boxes now offer a history of recently used documents, and list frequently accessed folders such as My Documents, Favorites and folders located on Web servers. Just as users no longer need to worry about converting a file to HTML, users don't have to learn how to FTP a file to a Web server. Instead, just save any document to a Web folder the same way you would save it to a folder on your hard drive and it will be accessible to anyone on an intranet. Any Office file can also be previewed in a Web browser, eliminating the need to own Office 2000 just to read a document.
Database publishing features allow any Access database to be published to the Web through simple drag and drop editing. Or you can build custom HTML forms using FrontPage and connect them to back-end data residing in an SQL database. Office 2000 can also create an Access database on the fly to store query results.
Over the years, the superior integration offered by Microsoft Office has made it the No. 1 choice in corporations, even when better individual programs existed. Now that integration extends beyond Office itself to the complete range of Microsoft operating systems, server platforms, networking systems and development tools.
By adding Office Server extensions to an NT file server, IT departments have the foundation necessary to use the Web as a collaborative platform that can turn personal productivity into workgroup productivity.
Office 2000 includes a FrontPage wizard that can walk you through the creation of a corporate portal that will allow all members of a team to share documents, participate in online discussions and analyze information. Links are automatically created and maintained by the software. Team members can collaborate in discussions by inserting comments from within their Web browser, receive automatic notification by e-mail every time a document is added or modified, or use a search engine to locate any file on the workgroup Web. FrontPage includes many powerful features found in custom solutions costing thousands of dollars more than the Office 2000 suite, including the ability to track team news and events, post events and project milestones to a shared calendar. Sample applications included with the program, such as online time-sheet tracking, issue tracking, user directory and sales analysis, allow you to work with and analyze live data on your intranet.
While this new functionality obviates the need for a product such as Lotus QuickPlace or Instinctive eRoom in some instances, the fact that it is entirely HTML based makes it easy to integrate those solutions with Office 2000 should your users need to graduate to a more powerful product.
For an off-the-shelf productivity suite, Office 2000 is remarkably customizable. Both Access and Excel can connect to a Microsoft SQL server and Excel 2000 includes support for Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) through Excel PivotTables. Besides serving as a front end to corporate data, it can be used to create fully realized custom applications that exploit Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM). All of the core applications included with Office 2000, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access and FrontPage, use the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming language and supply access to their internal functions through COM interfaces. Unfortunately, Publisher and PhotoDraw do not. The $999 Microsoft Office 2000 Developer (MOD) includes documentation, sample code and other tools to help programmers build and deploy custom solutions within Office. Programmers can use these tools to build COM add-ins, bring in data from external sources or allow other programs to control Office 2000.
Much of the complexity required to develop add-ins in Office 97 has been removed from this release. A standard interface between Office 2000 and COM add-ins lets you create add-ins that can be used across the entire suite, instead of having to be customized for each application.
Code Librarian includes a library of VBA functions and code fragments that can be copied and pasted into your applications and it can also serve as a repository for your own code. The Microsoft Script Editor does double duty as an editor for HTML and VBScript code. VisualSourceSafe provides your projects with source code version control.
Calls to the help desk can be kept to a minimum by extending the Office help system to include company-specific procedures and to connect users to training resources stored on corporate servers. Programmers can even program their own animated Office assistants.
With the release of Office 2000, the evolution to an enterprise platform is complete. In each application, enterprise-aware features have been added without sacrificing the suite's ease of use. More important, the Web support is not just hollow marketing hype but an integral part of the product. While this isn't as radical a move as turning over its source code to the open source community, Microsoft's endorsement of Web standards is an important step toward a connected and collaborative future.