Microsoft Office under the hood

Office is already the de facto suite on desktops, so users are familiar and comfortable with the established interface, but lurking below are new and useful tools that corporate users particularly would do well to inspect.

The interesting changes in Microsoft’s Office 2003 suite occur under the surface. Office is already the de facto suite on desktops, so users are familiar and comfortable with the established interface, but lurking below are new and useful tools that corporate users particularly would do well to inspect.

The most important change is the comprehensive support for XML. The previous version of Office allowed saving some documents in XML format, but Office 2003 goes much further, supporting schemas, XSL stylesheets and XML datasources.

IT departments can create so-called “smart documents” which provide end users with customised documents, combining datasources and interface for a specific purpose. Such documents can be indexed to ease the burden of finding and compiling information on filesystems, which is currently an awkward job.

There’s even a new application expressly designed to take advantage of Office’s XML features. InfoPath is both a forms designer and a form completion tool. Form widgets can be bound to XML datasources or XML web services, and the results returned in XML format. It works well. (Coincidentally, the W3C has just finalised the XForms specification, an XML-based language for describing forms. InfoPath, which needs to work with other Office apps, doesn't use XForms; Microsoft says InfoPath is designed for Office users, and XForms is more appropriate for developers. Hopefully a future version of InfoPath will support XForms.)

A second new app is aimed at mobile users. OneNote will run on any PC, but it’s particularly well suited to tablet use. Tablets and PIM-style software don’t appeal to everybody, but for a 1.0 release, OneNote is surprisingly functional and useful. There’s little doubt that voice is a better input “device” for portable computing than a pen or tiny keyboard, and it will be interesting to see how the product develops as future versions emerge. Microsoft is a hefty sponsor of tablet computing and OneNote may well see the fruits of some of that expensive research into voice recognition and mobile computing.

At Computerworld, we’ll stick to shorthand and keyboards, but we look forward to the day when mobile devices will do transcriptions for us. Perhaps they’ll correct any unfavourable “nuances” also.

This latest version of Office is heavily geared towards interaction with Microsoft’s server products, such as Exchange and SharePoint. Once Longhorn ships with WinFS, the indexed file service, a server stuffed with Office XML documents will double as a database. That may free up a lot of information that corporate users currently struggle to access.

Still, WinFS is scheduled to arrive at the same time as Longhorn, which Microsoft executives now expect to ship in 2006 — and it’s likely the server version will ship even later. It’s too early for corporates to start planning for the wholesale adoption of Office XML and WinFS, but those who are planning to migrate to Office 2003 would be well advised to plan their use of Office and XML at an early stage.

Office 2003 will be available from retailers today. The professional enterprise edition is priced at $1199; OneNote and InfoPath are sold separately, retailing for $429 and $499 respectively.

Cooney is a Computerworld reporter. Email him at matthew_cooney@idg.co.nz

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