InfoPath makes Office shine

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - If you want to skip straight to the lowdown, then yes, Microsoft Corp.'s Office 2003 is a must-have upgrade for enterprises. In terms of providing features that individual users need, the productivity suite reached the zenith of its evolution with Office 2000. But Office 2003 Professional Enterprise Edition and Professional Edition for retail deliver XML capabilities that are compelling to companies as a whole, and Enterprise Edition's inclusion of InfoPath turns Office into a powerful front end for IT shops rooted in XML (which, if sense prevails, describes all of IT). Office 2003 Enterprise's XML enhancements alone are worth the upgrade cost.

Office's XML facilities are not mere tweaks on the uninspiring Save As/Open As options in Office XP. Rather, they are XML done in a way that non-Office users will respect. Excel, Word, and the new InfoPath can use XML Schema documents to structure and constrain input, and to ensure that output conforms to the expectations of external applications. For companies that have the in-house expertise to employ it, the Office task pane that usually displays context-sensitive help can be used for guided input, with XML defining the structure of those forms.

Along with XML, InfoPath is, in our estimation, the best new feature to hit Office since real-time spell-checking. InfoPath is an XML editor with a twist: The user never sees the XML or the XML Schema that structures and validates it. Unlike XML features in Word and Excel, which must be set up by one skilled in the XML arts, InfoPath paints forms, validates input, and pumps out squeaky clean, standards-compliant XML without requiring one bit of XML expertise. InfoPath lives up to its billing both in ease of use and the quality of its output.

Office 2003 is, in the main, an excellent piece of work. But two key features are missing. Formatting information, which can be relevant to the interpretation of a document, is either stripped from exported XML documents, or retained in a needlessly complex format. Worst of all is the absence of XML support in Outlook, which continues to use an opaque data store for messages. Through XML, Outlook could interact with non-Microsoft mail clients and servers, and more importantly, it could easily incorporate RSS functionality.

Office 2003 Enterprise is a fantastic desktop suite, easily deserving of its Very Good rating. But Microsoft's decision to deprive most Office users of integrated XML functionality is, to be blunt, idiotic. As a reviewer, I'm obliged to evaluate and score the product at hand, and my rating is accurate for the Enterprise Edition I reviewed. But I add this footnote: To be truly useful, XML support must be consistent across all Office editions, and not limited to the Professional and Enterprise editions. I fear that thousands of Office 2003 users will be left wondering where all of these thrilling new features are.

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